To the Editor:
The retention problem (“Data Show Retention Disparities,” March 7, 2012) has its origins in the development of the age-grading system, which began in the late 1830s to cope with the rising population of immigrant children.
Schools were organized by age-based grades, and promotion from grade to grade was contingent on external examinations. These proved unreliable by 1900, and schools later began to use achievement-test scores to rationalize promotion decisions. Educators of the early 20th century discussed the “overage” problem because between 20 percent and 50 percent of all American children were two or more years behind age in grade placement. Many were immigrant children with poor English-language skills. Research has shown that leaving children back did no good, and often did actual harm.
The early-20th-century development of achievement tests with age norms and measurement in terms of years and months of achievement simply reified the concept of 3rd grade, or 5th grade, “achievement.” Reporting test scores in years and months of progress was a marketing coup by test publishers. The scores mean nothing more than a specified number of right answers on a certain test. Criterion-referenced testing does not change the issue. Age-grading is not God-given.
The age-grading system is wrong in its assumption that all children must learn at exactly the same rate. We are on the verge of a technological revolution. We can solve the 150-year-old retention problem by unburdening ourselves of age grading and by truly individualizing instruction.
With the guidance of a teacher, we can enable children to progress at individual rates, thus avoiding the shame, the assault to self-esteem, the stigma, and the risk of dropping out attendant upon being publicly left back.
Murray Levine and Adeline Levine
State University of New York at Buffalo
A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Individualized Instruction Is the Way Forward for Schools