Is Retention Without Remediation Punishment?

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The most extreme form of remediation is having students repeat a grade. But many educators agree that simply holding students back is not enough.

"If it didn't work before, it doesn't make any sense to do it again," said Kim Marshall, director of curriculum for the Boston Public Schools.

Students who repeat a grade for a second time need additional remedial assistance, educators argue, or else grade retention becomes a punitive measure.

But whether states and cities will be able to ensure that students who repeat a grade receive the support they need is unclear.

Growing Use

The movement toward stiffer policies for determining promotion and retention has spread rapidly. In the past five years, many cities, including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, have instituted promotion policies that rely in part on students' test results.

A similar change is occurring at the state level. Beginning this fall, every 3rd grader in Georgia will have to pass a statewide test to be promoted to grade 4. Such a policy already exists in Florida. In North Carolina, students will have to pass similar hurdles in three grades. And in Louisiana, parishes use students' performance on tests in grades 2 through 5 as one criterion for promotion.

Public Support

School officials argue that the public support for promotion policies is "overwhelming."

More than 95 percent of the American public favors high-school exit tests for students, according to a national survey conducted in November by three researchers from Michigan State University. Even if nearly half of the low-income students failed on their initial attempt to pass a high-school exit test, said 76 percent of the 1,200 adults interviewed, they still favored an exam.

The survey found similar support for tying promotion to test results.

"I think we have to get the message to children that they don't have the luxury of failing," explained Rita C. Altman, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional development for the Philadelphia Public Schools.

Increasing Numbers

According to Joan McCarty First, executive director of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, the current increase in educational standards will result in large numbers of students across the country being retained at grade level. Wherever statewide or citywide testing is implemented, she said, the most common form of "remediation" may become grade repetition.

"It doesn't require any restructuring of the educational system," she explained, "and it doesn't require any change in behavior on the part of adults. It's the route of least resistance."

Officials in cities that are just implementing promotion policies, like Boston and Philadelphia, say it is too soon to tell how much the percentage of students held back in grade will increase, or how much it will cost to serve those students.

Bernard G. Kelner, associate superintendent for policies and procedures for the Philadelphia Public Schools, said that in other places where such policies have been instituted, the percentage of students repeating a grade increased at first, but dropped within five or six years to below the percentage retained before the policies began.

Philadelphia already holds back about 17 percent of its students--or 29,000 children. Mr. Kelner said that as long as the school system is "determined" to provide special services for such children, "the cost will be heavy."

"Right now, we're talking about doing it within our budget," he added. "Some subjects, some programs, will have to be cut or eliminated in order to free up funds."

New York City spent approximately $5.6 million this year on special services for students who are retained under the Promotional Gates6

Program, which tests students in grades 4 and 7.

That cost includes program administration, facilitators in each school district, smaller classes for students who repeat a grade, summer school, and special classes for students who are retained more than once. The program provides remediation in reading but not mathematics and, served about 8,000 students this year, according to Leonard Hellenbrand, budget director for the New York City Board of Education.

Questionable Benefits

But even as cities and states press ahead with new promotion plans, research on grade repetition is finding that it may not improve student achievement.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development conducted an analysis of retention policies last year. Concluding that retention is not a promising tool for helping hard-to-teach children, the analysis noted that there is a "lack of any convincing historical evidence that retention accomplishes its purpose."

In a recent review of retention policies, David F. Labaree, an assistant professor of sociology at Widener University in Pennsylvania, concluded, "There is no valid evidence which demonstrates that either promotion or retention has any significant impact on the low-achieving student."

Among the writers of the six major literature reviews on retention in the last 10 years, he noted, not one adopted a position in support of grade retention. Three were neutral; one mildly favored social promotion (or the advancement of students based on social needs, such as remaining with their own age group, rather than on proven ability); and two others strongly supported social promotion. He also noted that cities have conducted few careful evaluations of the new promotion policies instituted in the last few years.

Reviewing the first-year evaluations of New York City's Promotional Gates Program, Mr. Labaree concluded: "Most retained students made significant achievement gains during the year; but when the researchers established controls for alternative explanations, these gains vanished. Low-achieving students promoted or retained under the more relaxed standards of the old promotional policy raised their achievement levels in one year by the same amount as the Gates students."

He added: "Considering how much effort was expended under this program to boost achievement in the Gates group, this finding is quite disheartening."

The city's final evaluation of students who participated in the second year of the Gates program is more encouraging. In both the 4th and 7th grades, the gains in the reading achievement of Gates students were substantially greater than those of the earlier comparison group, according to the office of educational evaluation for the New York City Board of Education.

Critics of retention argue that children who repeat a grade ultimately make less academic progress than other children and have poor self-images and negative attitudes toward school. They are also more likely to drop out of school than other children and to become pregnant at an early age, according to Barriers to Excellence: Our Children at Risk, a recent study of the educational problems of poor, minority, and female students.

Hoped-For Benefits

Why are schools moving forward with retention policies in the face of inconclusive research?

"We don't believe the research," said Mr. Marshall. "It is counter-intuitive. Certainly, our superintendent, who led this effort, has always believed that when you demand more of kids, you get more out of them, and that we do kids no favors by not demanding basic grade-level performance." He added, "Not to set standards is to make an implication about students' inability to learn."

Indeed, the public views the lowering of promotional standards as a lack of commitment to student achievement, Mr. Labaree wrote, and it views the raising of those standards as an expression of concern.

"For a school board under pres-sure to do something about poor achievement levels, a promotional-standards policy may prove to be irresistible," he noted. "Such a program seems to offer a chance not only to improve student performance but also to defuse public criticism by initiating procedures that can be implemented quickly and at minimal cost."

He cautioned, however, that "a full-fledged promotional policy is not a cheap solution to the problem of student achievement."

New Challenge

In some ways, educators are coming full circle in their ideas about grade repetition. Promotion policies based on achievement predominated until the turn of the century, according to Mr. Labaree. The idea of social promotion did not become popular until compulsory-attendance laws forced schools to find some way to move large numbers of children through the system efficiently.

The difference between the achievement-based promotion policies of past eras and those instituted today is that previous policies ignored the least able students, Mr. Labaree wrote. The policies were essentially funneling devices that identified a smaller and smaller number of students judged capable of higher learning.

Now the challenge is to institute achievement-based promotion policies without losing large numbers of students along the way.

"The dropout potential of these kids is enormous," said Harold L. Hodgkinson, former director of the National Institute of Education and a senior fellow with the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, "and they're heavily minority, heavily lower socioeconomic status."

"Ultimately, the goal is not to hold people back, the goal is to promote their learning," he added. "Unfortunately, some people get confused about means and ends. I've heard a number of people say, 'Isn't that wonderful that a smaller percentage of young people are graduating from high school, because that means that standards are going up.' Exclusion has always been one definition of excellence."

Vol. 04, Issue 38

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