Why Schools Are Not Holding Students Back to Address COVID-19 Learning Loss

By Sarah Schwartz — June 18, 2020 6 min read
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One thing is clear from this spring: Countless students will start next school year with considerable learning loss. But for most districts, there’s one option for catching students up that isn’t on the table: holding them back a grade.

Superintendents in several big city school districts, including Baltimore and Boston, have said publicly that they won’t retain students due to their academic performance during the school closure period. And while most states either don’t have specific guidance around promotion for next year, or note that it’s a district decision, about a dozen have encouraged schools to promote students to the next grade.

“The spring was really a hold-harmless period for kids across the country, and specifically for big city school districts,” said Raymond Hart, the director of research for the Council of the Great City Schools. “Most are promoting students to the next grade level, with the understanding that beginning to teach grade level standards next year will involve going back and shoring up past learning.”

Nationally, other school leaders seem to agree with this approach. In an EdWeek Research Center survey from early April, only 22 percent of district leaders said that students would be held back as a consequence for not completing work during school closures. A recent RAND Corporation survey found that principals were also hesitant to require students to repeat a grade in response to the COVID crisis: 84 percent said they would not take this measure.

District leaders who have chosen to avoid retention cite evidence that it doesn’t improve outcomes, and argue that holding large groups of students back will disproportionately hurt students of color and students from low-income families.

“There’s just so much you can put on kids and teachers who are dealing with a lot of trauma right now,” said Brenda Cassellius, the superintendent of Boston Public Schools.

‘Huge Equity Implications’

In Boston, the district has built multi-tiered systems of supports into its remote learning plan, in attempts to minimize learning loss during the closures. About 15,000 of the district’s 53,000 students require academic interventions during this period and have personalized success plans, which will be handed over to their next school year’s teacher, Cassellius said.

Students who have an incomplete in a credit-bearing course at the end of the school year will have the chance to finish over the summer, or make up the course through a credit recovery program next year.

“This is not about social promotion. This is about acceleration of students, and making sure that we’re addressing any learning loss,” Cassellius said.

She and other district and state leaders who have advocated for promoting students next school year have advocated for acceleration over retention, pointing toward retention’s mixed research base.

A few studies have found that holding elementary students back and providing them with extra support—such as interventions, summer school, or high-quality teachers—can lead to academic gains. But in these cases, it’s hard to separate the potential benefits of these extra supports from the effect of retention itself, said Paco Martorell, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Davis.

Some of Martorell’s research, which examined retaining 5th graders in New York City, found that students who were held back did better on 6th and 7th grade assessments. “There’s probably some academic benefits of being held back, but whether that persists in the long term, the evidence on that is pretty mixed,” he said.

For older students, the outlook is worse. “The studies that have the strongest research design tend to find that for late middle school, 7th to 8th graders … retention is not effective, and it probably has negative effects—increasing the likelihood of dropping out, not graduating from high school,” Martorell said.

But he was quick to point out that COVID school closures are a context unlike what any of these researchers have studied.

“If there’s differential learning loss because of the move to online learning, that has huge equity implications whether or not you hold students back,” Martorell said. The question shouldn’t be who to retain, he said, but what are schools and teachers doing to offset learning loss for everyone?

In an opinion piece for the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises described how holding students back next year could further inequities, asking readers to “consider how retention might play out in practice: for instance, the implications of using a single blunt assessment to decide who should be left back; the imperfect logic of focusing on low-income students, some of whom are performing above grade level; the role that bias might play in deciding who is left back; the role that parent advocacy might play in deciding who is advanced.

“The likely practical outcome of this extraordinarily expensive approach—$15,000 per student at Maryland’s current spending rate—will be to burden large groups of students already adversely affected by segregation with lowered expectations and even more segregation,” she wrote.

‘Get Them Ready for the Next Level’

Though many districts are discouraging broad retention plans, it’s hard to know yet exactly whether fewer students than usual will be held back next year nationwide.

A handful of states have suspended their 3rd grade reading laws, policies that prevent students from advancing to the next grade unless they can demonstrate grade-level proficiency. Many of these policies are tied to performance on state tests, which states have canceled in response to the pandemic.

In some states, though, these policies have been amended instead of waived. In South Carolina, for example, the state department of education has instructed schools to make 3rd grade promotion decisions based on “a collection of data points that may include formative assessments, teacher-made assessments, quarter grades earned, and prior parent notification and input” in lieu of test scores.

Bree Dusseault, the practitioner-in-residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, said that many schools in the organization’s database of district coronavirus responses adopted a do-no-harm approach to grading for these past few months—switching to a pass/fail system, for example, or saying that students’ grades could only be improved during this time period, not lowered.

“What we don’t have insight into is exactly how and whether districts used grades to promote or retain students,” she said.

In Baltimore, high school English/language arts teacher LaQuisha Hall is glad that students’ performance during this period won’t be used to make such decisions.

She was overwhelmed hearing about some of the challenges her students and their families have gone through this spring. “I wouldn’t have felt good for holding a student back for something that wasn’t their fault, or their choice,” she said. She’s “in 100 percent agreement” with Santelises’ decision, she said.

Having been forced to adapt quickly this spring, she feels ready to take on new challenges in differentiation and intervention in the fall. Doing so won’t be entirely “out of the norm,” she said. “We get students with deficits every year,” Hall said. “Our job as an educational leader is to pull them up and get them ready for the next level.”


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