School & District Management

Ending Social Promotion

By Debra Viadero — March 15, 2000 16 min read
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Is grade retention good for something after all?

It’s rare in education when the research all seems to point to a single conclusion. But researchers have agreed for years that making a struggling child repeat a grade almost always does more harm than good. That is, until recently.

Since 1994, at least three major studies, based separately on data gathered in settings as far-flung as Baltimore, Chicago, and Texas, have begun to suggest that what educators call “grade retention” might not always be unwise. Students who were retained in Texas, for example, went on to do better on average than peers who were passed on to the next grade despite failing grades and test scores.

“So often, colleges of education have a mantra, and their mantra is ‘never retain,’” says A. Gary Dworkin, the University of Houston sociologist who led the Texas study. “What we’re arguing is that retention is not always bad.”

But critics of the new studies, including some of the most high-powered researchers in the field, contend that many of the conclusions drawn in them can’t be believed for a variety of reasons, ranging from design flaws to differing educational contexts.

Understanding exactly what the research has to say on grade retention is especially important right now in light of campaigns nationwide to stamp out the “social promotion” of failing students— passing them to the next grade to keep them with their age group. Policymakers in the mid-1990s began attacking social promotion as soft-minded education policy, a position that has won bipartisan support from political leaders, including President Clinton and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. If states and the nation are going to set high academic standards for students, they argue, schools must be prepared to hold students accountable—even if it means flunking those who can’t make the cut.

Now, dozens of school districts, faced with the prospect of having to do exactly that, are considering whether to forge on with their strict new retention policies or to re-examine them. Looking at the prospect of failing up to 40 percent of its students this year, the Los Angeles district, for example, chose the latter course and scaled back the system’s new requirements for student promotion.

Largely ignored by policymakers until now, research on the issue may yet prove to be a guide as state and local officials sort out where to go next on the hotly debated issue.

From the rhetoric generated on the subject so far, the public might conclude that social promotion has been rampant in districts nationwide. Not so, according to a panel of scientists convened by the congressionally chartered National Research Council to study the use of tests.

In a report published last year, the panel estimates that at least 15 percent of children nationwide repeat a grade between ages 6 and 17. In some districts, surveys have shown, up to half the students have been held back.

Two national trends may be pushing up the numbers of students who are over age for their grades. One is a practice begun in the 1980s in many districts to channel struggling kindergartners into “junior 1st grades,” “developmental 1st grades,” or “transition” classes to give them another year to mature.

At the same time, more parents are thought to be “redshirting” their children—starting them in kindergarten later— to give them an academic or athletic edge down the road.

Grade retention has been common even in Texas, where the legislature in 1999 became the fifth state that year to link promotion to passing state tests. Under the new law, 3rd graders who have repeatedly failed state reading tests can be required to be retained beginning in 2002. The state has also set aside money, however, to help schools pay for a range of programs to help students meet the new standards, both before they are held back and afterward.

The debate over the issue in that state is what prompted the Texas Education Agency, at the direction of the state legislature, to fund the study undertaken by Mr. Dworkin and his colleagues at the University of Houston’s Sociology of Education Research Group. Since 1994, the researchers have tracked successive groups of 35,000 students a year—roughly one fifth of Texas 3rd graders—who failed the 3rd grade state assessment. But only 1.2 percent of those students were required to repeat a grade.

Compared with students who were promoted despite failing reading scores, the researchers found, the students who repeated a grade did much better. The scores of retained students improved by an average of 20 test-score points the following year, while the students who had gone on to 4th grade made no real gains—not a big surprise, since the repeaters were already familiar with the tests.

But, unlike the retained students tracked in many previous studies on retention, those students outperformed the socially promoted students over the next four years. Most of the promoted students kept failing the state tests until they were forced to repeat a grade later.

The University of Houston research group, which unveiled its findings last fall, has since turned up similar patterns with students who failed both the reading and math portions of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills.

Technical Concerns

Like the other two recent studies on retention, much of the disagreement over the Texas study revolves around seemingly arcane statistical details. Yet the credibility of the studies could well hinge on such minutiae.

“I don’t find any of the three studies persuasive on the retention side,” says Robert M. Hauser, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. “Most of the evidence so far continues to show that most kids are better off being promoted.”

One of the problems with the Texas study, according to Lorrie A. Shepard, an education professor at the University of Colorado, is that it focuses only on students who failed the tests, when only a small portion of students who were retained in Texas actually did so. Many students were retained for other reasons, such as excessive absences, discipline problems, or below-average work in other subjects.

Restricting the sample so narrowly, Ms. Shepard argues, prevents researchers from generalizing about the larger sample of all retained students.

Ms. Shepard, who is the president of the American Educational Research Association, contends that the same methodology also makes the research vulnerable to a common statistical occurrence known as “regression to the mean.” The term refers to the tendency of the very top and very bottom scores on a test to drift closer to the average over repeated test-takings. If the retained students’ scores were improving each year, she said, it could be because of that phenomenon.

“I think they’ve exaggerated the benefits of retention,” she concludes.

For his part, Mr. Dworkin and his study partners say “regression to the mean’’ doesn’t explain all the gains. They contend regression doesn’t account for the fact that the retained students end up surpassing the failed-but-promoted students, a group that started out slightly ahead of them. In addition, he notes, the study sample was narrowly defined because that was the charge state legislators gave the researchers. “It’s not a study of the advantages of retention in general or the disadvantages of retention,” Mr. Dworkin says.

The Texas researchers say they rechecked their data to make sure the groups they measured were comparable.

If Texas succeeded where other school systems have not, Mr. Dworkin adds, it may be because of all the special services provided to students in the repeat year of schooling.

What’s more, much is riding on the state tests, which have been a centerpiece of Texas’ school improvement efforts. Principals and teachers, who can be fired based on the results, have a vested interest in making sure students do well.

“In the previous studies, there was no indication that anything was done differently for students who were retained, and we know in Texas that was not the case,’' adds Jon P. Lorence, an associate professor of sociology and a study co-author.

Indeed, there has been growing recognition in some districts that have adopted stricter new policies on promotion that extra help is needed for students who are held back. And those factors could distinguish some of the newer research from past studies.

Lessons From Baltimore

In contrast, little is known about the remediation that retained students received in Baltimore, where Karl L. Alexander and his colleagues tracked for up to eight years nearly 800 students who began 1st grade in 1982. The Johns Hopkins University research team, like the University of Houston researchers, determined that grade repeaters did better both during the retention year and for several years afterward. Unlike many previous studies, though, the Baltimore researchers compared retained students’ performance after the repeat grade with their academic profiles before they were held back.

“Knowing retainees’ problems were more severe before retention than after tells us that retention itself has not created or compounded their problems,” Mr. Alexander and his co-authors, Doris R. Entwistle and Susan L. Dauber, write in The Success of Failure, their 1994 book on the study.

In the end, the authors conclude: “While not a cure-all, retention appears to be a reasonably effective practice. Spending two years in a grade does not bring repeaters up to acceptable levels of performance. ... Nevertheless, most youngsters who are held back do much better the second time through a grade and for several years afterward they continue to show improvement over their standing before retention.” After that, the gains trail off, the Baltimore study found.

A big surprise in the study, which is widely considered one of the most thorough descriptions of children’s various pathways through school, was that the retained students continued to show improvements in their levels of self-regard and in their attitudes toward school. Children in most previous studies of retention said they felt bad about staying behind while their friends advanced. In one such study, children rated repeating a grade as less stressful than only two other possible events—going blind or losing a parent.

But Ms. Shepard, Mr. Hauser, and other researchers say the Johns Hopkins researchers departed from their data in reaching that conclusion, and that they used a different comparison for that part of the study. What’s more, they add, retention was a fairly normal part of the school routine in Baltimore at the time of the study—and therefore not such a frightening prospect for children.

Having reanalyzed the Baltimore data three years ago, Ms. Shepard also faults the authors for measuring gains with a version of the California Achievement Test that is scaled on the assumption that students learn more in earlier grades than they do in later years. Thus, a retained student whose progress is being measured on a 3rd grade test might look better than a promoted student whose progress is measured on a 4th grade test.

However, Mr. Alexander says, “I don’t believe the methodological criticisms of the work undermine our basic conclusions.” What’s more, he notes, a study published last year by Nancy Karweit, another Johns Hopkins researcher, reaches similar conclusions. Ms. Karweit, tracking 20,000 students in the federal Title 1 program for disadvantaged students, concluded that, compared with the academic progress they were making before they were held back, retained children make up some ground relative to struggling children who were allowed to pass.

Other Benefits From Retention?

Unlike the Baltimore and Texas studies, the Chicago study does not depart from the mainstream of research on the question of whether repeating a grade can help students. Two years after being held back, the Chicago students studied were doing no better than students who had been allowed to move ahead, according to the Chicago Consortium on School Research, which conducted the study.

But the preliminary findings from that report, which were released in December, do suggest some other, less studied benefits from Chicago’s “tough love” promotion policy. In 1996, the district began requiring students to pass the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills in order to be promoted.

First, compared with the year before the new policy was implemented, overall test scores improved by an average of 20 percent to 21 percent for all students in two of the three grades tested. And 13 percent of the 6th graders who had failed the test during the school year aced it after six weeks in summer school, thus avoiding having to repeat a grade. Researchers caution, though, that both the study and the district’s new promotion policies are still a work in progress.

“Everybody in Chicago is working to raise kids’ scores on the ITBS, and the question is whether this is a real change,” says Mr. Hauser of the University of Wisconsin. “Have they really accomplished something, or is this just because they’ve used the same three or four forms of the test year after year?”

The only way to answer that question, he says, is to give students an independent test.

Meanwhile, in defense of the research findings that appear more favorable to a policy of grade retention, Mr. Alexander and other researchers point out that many of the studies cited by defenders of social promotion are riddled with flaws, too. Some are more than a half-century old, for example. Others track students only for a year or two or fail to gauge retained students’ academic progress against any comparison groups.

Choosing the right group with which to make comparisons is also a tricky business. If retained students are compared with students the same age in the next grade, the promoted students may look better just by virtue of having been exposed to more of the curriculum. On the other hand, grade repeaters get more favorable treatment in a study that compares them with their grade-mates.

The push for inclusion of special education students in regular classrooms also could skew scores in “socially promoted” groups, since children with individualized education plans are often passed on to the next grade despite low academic performance.

“The studies that show negative effects of retention are quasi- experimental studies,” says Ms. Shepard, who has done much of the work showing the downside of retention. “They’re as good as the smoking studies. We don’t make people smoke to see if smoking causes lung cancer. We do things instead like compare smokers to quitters.”

But she concedes that those retention studies, too, are not perfect. “They’re each flawed, and people have to sift through what the sources of error are in each in order to make sensible interpretations,” she adds.

However, she also points out that the anti- retention camp still has one big gun on its side: “meta-analysis,” which is a sophisticated method of lumping together and analyzing many studies on a single subject by taking into account the size of the changes that were found.

In one such review, published in 1989, researcher C.T. Holmes of the University of Georgia analyzed the size of the effects found in 64 studies, some of which favored retention and some of which did not. In the end, he found, the benefits of promoting failing students outweighed the benefits of retention by an average of .4 standard deviations, an effect size considered moderate.

Depending on where a student started on the assessment scale, a standard deviation of that size could translate into a gain of 10 to 15 percentile points on a standardized test.

Of the 64 studies Mr. Holmes reviewed, 54 yielded negative effects for retention.

Most studies show repeating a grade increases the likelihood a student will drop out of school.

“The body of work taken together has more weight than one flawed study,” says Ms. Shepard.

On one question there remains—at least for now—broad agreement: whether repeating a grade increases the likelihood a student will drop out of school. Most studies show that it does.

Some of the newest data come from a soon-to-be-published study tracking 1,500 poor Chicago children from preschool to high school. In that study, Arthur J. Reynolds of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Ann J. McCoy of the University of Houston found that students who had been retained at least once were 33 percent more likely than non-retained students to have dropped out by age 18—even when both groups had the same academic profile.

The Baltimore researchers continued tracking the students in their study through their early 20s and found that 65 percent of grade repeaters dropped out of school, compared with 18 percent of the non-repeaters. Among those who were held back both in middle school and in elementary school, dropout rate was 94 percent.

It’s too soon to tell whether the same pattern will hold true with the Texas study or the Chicago data.

And even if repeating a grade helps some students, the research on promotion offers little guidance to help educators decide who those students are. “The work just hasn’t been done,” says Mr. Reynolds, an associate professor of social work and educational psychology.

Evidence does show that some alternatives to retention may be more effective with low achievers. Such alternatives include peer tutoring, intensive reading-remediation such as the Reading Recovery approach, and some high-quality early-childhood programs.

What is desperately needed in all of the debate, says Jim Grant, the executive director of the Society for Developmental Education, based in Peterborough, N.H., is common sense. “Neither viewpoint of retaining everybody or not retaining everybody is common sense,” he says.

Need for Flexibility

Linda J. Holman, the principal of Hillside Elementary School in El Paso, Texas, has read the research showing the potential harm of holding children back. Still, with an 86 percent poverty rate and a location just over a mile from the Mexican border, the 696-student school recommends an average of seven or eight pupils for retention each year. “We get kids in from Mexico who have been nonschooled, and we put them in 1st grade because that is their chronological age, and by April, they don’t know the letters of the alphabet,” Ms. Holman says. “To put them in 2nd grade would not be doing them a favor.”

But when Ms. Holman was an assistant principal at another school 11 years ago, she also encountered a young girl who became unusually distraught at the news she would have to repeat 3rd grade. “She just stuck in my mind because she was very, very distressed,” she says. “There are some children it really bothers even as young as 3rd grade.”

Without a large-scale experiment that randomly assigns some students to be held back and promotes others to the next grade, the issue will never be settled, Mr. Hauser says. Most educators—and many researchers—consider that notion both unethical and unworkable.

But Mr. Hauser points out that studies show that many students are already retained on an arbitrary basis in many districts. “If we’re going to have some failing kids promoted while others are held back,” he asks, “why don’t we do it in a way that we could learn from?”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Ending Social Promotion


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