…doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
The above quote, often attributed to Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin, or Mark Twain, is a good representation of the American educational practice of “retention in grade.”
For the past 100 years the “common sense” concept of “retaining,” “flunking,” or “holding students back” has been a mainstay of American education. It seems to make sense that if a child doesn’t achieve the required learning during his/her year in a particular grade, repeating the grade to reinforce the learning would help. Unfortunately for the child, the “common sense” is wrong and retention in grade usually doesn’t work.
It may seem reasonable to give a child an extra year to “catch up,” however, research has consistently shown that retention in grade is less effective than other forms of remediation.
Despite the research, however, the current trend is for states to require students to read “at grade level” by third grade or face retention. The mayoral controlled city school systems of Chicago and New York have also tried it and found that it didn’t work. Florida does it. North Carolina does it. Indiana does it. It’s also being used in Texas, Ohio, Iowa, and Arizona. (FYI see Chapter 7, Section 2 of the A-Plus Literacy Act by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC)
Rather than simply expecting schools to bring all children to a Lake Wobegon standard of “at grade level” by third grade, Americans, and their legislators must understand that not all children learn at the same rate. Rather than wasting money retaining children at third grade, states ought to invest in early childhood education, early interventions like Reading Recovery and smaller class sizes.
Holding Kids Back Doesn’t Help Them by Deborah Stipek and Michael Lombardo
A majority of peer-reviewed studies over the past 30 years have demonstrated that holding students back yields little or no long-term academic benefits and can actually be harmful to students…
Moreover, there is compelling evidence that retention can reduce the probability of high school graduation…
Instead of giving children the same treatment that failed them the first time, alternative strategies provide different kinds of learning opportunities.
Interventions should also begin long before 3rd grade. Research has provided compelling evidence that investments in preschool can reduce retention and have positive long-term payoff for individuals and society, in contrast to the negative long-term effects of holding a student back later.
FLORIDA THINKS TWICE
Not mentioned in the article below, but included in the one above, is the fact that the gains of “retention in grade” are lost in about 2 years, and by 8th grade Florida students are still below the national average in reading proficiency.
Many students could use the extra help: Nationally, 32 percent of fourth-graders were reading at below basic levels in 2013, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
But it’s unclear whether the retention policies work as intended.
One study from Florida shows that after two years of implementation, third-graders who were retained made significant reading gains relative to their socially promoted peers.
But other studies have shown that retention leads to loss of self-esteem, a decreased feeling of belonging at school and negative effects on college attendance. A Harvard University study found that any positive effects of retention fade out over time.
Data from Florida show that about a third of students held back for a year in 2003 never became proficient at reading. But a state official also noted that fewer students have been retained over the years because they’re getting more intensive instruction, thanks to the law.
A benefit of the Florida law that further denies the effectiveness of grade retention is
…retention plus being assigned to a highly effective teacher and receiving 90 minutes of additional literacy instruction per day is more effective than being promoted with no such guaranteed, high-dosage interventions.
The Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy at the University of Denver reviewed the research on retention.
They concluded that Florida had improved test scores according to some studies specifically because…
Florida also has universal preschool, class size limits, and guaranteed high-quality literacy coaches, among other well-financed innovations.
In other words, when money is provided for proven interventions, student acheivement improves.
…since 2006 Florida has legislated a separate education fund guaranteed to be spent on literacy. This year that fund has $130M to distribute across its districts to be spent on highly qualified literacy coaches, intensive summer reading camps for lagging readers, among others. Although Florida’s unique combination of reforms and financial backing is likely largely responsible for some test score gains seen there, the effects of retention itself are not possible to isolate.
Until the United States finally decides to place a high priority on our early learners, especially those who are at risk due to poverty and English language learners, we’ll have an economic and linguistic learning gap. Forced retention at third grade won’t change that.
There are sufficient data to conclude that retention in the absence of well-funded, guaranteed, and high-dosage interventions is ineffective or harmful. This includes the most recent research using the most rigorous methods to control for pre-retention differences.
Forced retention in grade, the overuse and misuse of testing, closing schools instead of supporting them, charter schools, vouchers, invalid teacher evaluations, reducing teacher benefits, lowering requirements for educators — None of those “reforms” will help children.
What will help is early and intensive research-based interventions for students at risk of failure.
Unfortunately, “reformers” haven’t figured out how to make money from actually helping students.
All who envision a more just, progressive and fair society cannot ignore the battle for our nation’s educational future. Principals fighting for better schools, teachers fighting for better classrooms, students fighting for greater opportunities, parents fighting for a future worthy of their child’s promise: their fight is our fight. We must all join in.