A mother in the Bronx is arguing against the social promotion of her 11-year-old son with special needs because she believes he is not ready for 6th grade. What the mother is asking for seems reasonable—if her son has failed to master 5th grade work, why would he be able to do 6th grade work? Yet, the school’s desire to socially promote the student is unusual. But is the alternative, grade retention, a more viable option?
Social promotion became popular in the 1970s due to fears that its alternative; namely, retention, led to issues with self-esteem for those students who were “flunked” a grade. However, social promotion fell into disfavor in the 1980s with the recognition that students who were receiving high school diplomas were ill-prepared for either college or work. Social promotion went on to became a political issue when President Clinton, in his 1999 State of the Union Address, declared that, “No child should graduate from high school with a diploma he or she can’t read. We do our children no favors when we allow them to pass from grade to grade without mastering the material.”
Does retention help improve academics? Data is clear that retention is a bad idea. Any academic gains students experience dissipate after two or three years, and students who are retained suffer greater emotional and behavioral problems than their poor performing, but not retained, peers. Fears of retention in fact can be crippling to students. A study from the 1980s indicated that 6th-grade students feared only two things more than retention: death of a parent and blindness. By 2001 when the study was repeated, students’ fear of retention surpassed the fear of death of a parent or blindness. Perhaps it is then not surprising that researchers consider retention the single greatest predictor of whether a student will drop out of high school; retained students are 2 to 11 times more likely to drop out of school than their poor academic achieving peers who were promoted.
What about students with special needs? It appears that children with mild learning disabilities are frequently retained prior to being identified as having special needs. In an Indiana study, researchers found that 58% of all students with learning disabilities were retained prior to being identified, double the rate of non-LD students, suggesting that at least in Indiana, retention is being used as a remedial intervention. Another group of researchers found that a staggering 72% of students were retained at least once before being referred for special education services. These are a lot of different numbers based on a lot of different data, but they are important given that the dropout rate for students with learning disabilities is estimated to range from 42 to 54%. How much are retention policies leading to this high dropout rate?
Overall, hard data are unavailable to indicate how many students on IEPs are actually retained. The 1995 Census Bureau data indicated that more than one-third of students on IEPs were retained. However, the rate of retention among students on IEPs is unclear due to poor data collection by states. One group of researchers is urging that grade retention data be added to the mandated reporting procedures for school districts under IDEA.
The evidence is overwhelming that retention fails to improve academics, yet many teachers and parents believe that it will help struggling students. Anita Sakowicz in 1996 called retention a clear example of “poor communication between practice and research.” Furthermore, the American Federation of Teachers in 1997 concluded that neither social promotion nor retention benefits children. An AFT report “Passing on Failure” delineates several reasons for student failure: “immaturity, weak curriculum and instruction, excessive absenteeism, lack of effort, failure of teachers and administrators as well as parents to use practices that promote high achievement, and failure due to a combination of factors listed above.” This list of “blame” for poor performance is interesting, because it “reframes the issue as a failure of school curriculum and instruction, and less as a failure of individual students.”
Numerous researchers have proposed alternative strategies to help schools develop better programs for struggling students. Linda Darling-Hammond states that the best predictor of academic success is teacher competence. Children need effective teachers if they are to learn. Thus schools need to enhance teacher development through teacher networks and mentoring of less experienced teachers with more experienced teachers. Darling-Hammond also recommends redesigning schools to create smaller class sizes, block periods, and remaining with teachers for multiple years (looping). Other researchers recommend creation of smaller schools and use of multiage classrooms, where a student can move to the next grade for material he has mastered and receive remediation with the lower grade in areas in which he struggles. In addition, schools need to develop clear standards, which can check the effectiveness of the teaching and learning process, as well as provide reliable data on student progress. Schools need to use multiple assessments to evaluate students rather than relying on a single test for a retention decision.
All these ideas about restructuring schools and developing standards and new curriculum to help students avoid academic failure may be wonderful, but they may not now be available for your child. So come spring and the school wants to discuss with you the possibility of retaining your child for the following year, what should you do? First, try to find out why your child has failed. If your child has not already been identified with a special need, request a case study evaluation to determine where the breakdown in learning for your child is. Make sure your child is assigned a strong, experienced teacher—don’t settle for the new kid on the block. Will the school start response to intervention (RTI) for your child? Make sure you understand how your child’s progress is being monitored and stay on top of it (you don’t want to find out come next spring that your child has lost further ground rather than begun to catch up). Ask about multiage classrooms or looping your child with a known, strong teacher. And don’t forget, any additional academic support, such as tutoring, extended day/after school programs, extra help periods, Saturday classes, and summer school, can be made available to struggling students who have been promoted. They’re not just for students who have been retained.