Earlier this year, President Clinton announced that it was time to end social promotion—the practice of promoting students to the next grade regardless of their academic progress. Since then, it has become clear that educators and legislators are listening. California, Delaware, South Carolina, and Wisconsin have all passed laws forbidding the practice, and, in effect, requiring schools to reinstate retention.
This is the latest chapter in a decades-long struggle to address the problem of the failing student. On the one hand, teachers don't want to see a 15-year-old sitting in a 7th-grade classroom. On the other, they don't want to pass a student who is clearly failing. As a result, the pendulum between retention and promotion continues to swing wildly.
"It follows a seven- or eight-year cycle," says retention researcher Lorrie Shepard, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "Right now, politicians are seeing retention as the remedy. Once they feel the negative side effects, they'll back off."
According to Jim Grant, director of the Society for Developmental Education in Peterborough, NH, even retention proponents say they're tired of seeing the educational community swing from one extreme to the other. "We've gone from no retentions to a move to retain everyone. That'll devastate a lot of lives," says Grant. "No one's thinking it through."
"It's a shame it's always cast in these terms—retention and social promotion," says Johns Hopkins University professor Karl Alexander, author of On the Success of Failure: A Reassessment of the Effects of Retention in the Primary Grades. "There ought to be a lot of things in between. We need to find out about intervention programs that are effective and cost-effective."
A growing number of schools are, in fact, implementing alternative intervention programs intended to beef up academic skills and, in the process, reduce the retention rate. Programs such as mandatory summer school, one-on-one tutoring, after-school programs, and comprehensive, school-wide reforms are popping up all over the country.
Retention: common sense or nonsense?
A 1996 study done by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 16.8 percent of seniors had repeated at least one grade since kindergarten. The most frequently repeated grades were kindergarten through second. In addition, a recent study from the National Academy of Sciences suggests the rate of retention may be higher than that. The researchers looked at 6- to 8-year-old students in the 1980s and early 1990s and found that by the time the students were ages 9-11, 25 to 30 percent were no longer in the appropriate grade for their age group. Part of this may be due to delayed entry into kindergarten.
In many schools, retention is still the preferred remedy. Jim Grant, a former classroom teacher, holds seminars for teachers and encourages them to think of retention as "additional learning time" for misplaced students.
"When you have 365 birth dates and two genders and kids who are low birth weight and are living in poverty, someone is going to be assigned to the wrong grade," contends Grant. "Often you can correct an inappropriate placement by having a child repeat the grade."
Research suggests that most U.S. teachers agree with Grant. While parents usually have the final say, the classroom teacher is the one who recommends retention to the principal.
Arizona State University professor Mary Lee Smith interviewed 40 teachers at 10 different primary schools in Boulder, CO. "Few teachers could name one negative effect of retention," writes Smith in Flunking Grades. "Almost all stated... they would rather err on the side of retaining a child who possibly might not need it than to promote one who might have needed to be retained. Nor," she adds, "was there doubt that children's achievement and adjustment would be enhanced by a second year before first grade."
Nevertheless, Grant argues that retention is not appropriate for all struggling students. He says it works best for younger students in a class, emotionally immature children of average or high ability, and children who are small for their age. However, a 1992 study by Yale University professor Arthur Reynolds bolstered arguments that a disproportionate number of disadvantaged minority children are retained, as are boys, those who attend urban schools, and children with behavior problems.
Does retention work?
The majority of studies conducted over the last few decades suggest the practice does more harm than good. In a 1989 analysis of 63 empirical studies, University of Georgia professor C. Thomas Holmes found 54 that resulted in overall negative effects. Retention harmed students' achievement, attendance record, personal adjustment in school, and attitude toward school. The studies were conducted in a wide range of districts around the country. The analysis compared retained children in elementary and junior high school to matched groups of equally low-performing peers who were promoted. When Holmes specifically compared 1st-grade retainees to those who were promoted, he found that students who were retained didn't do as well as those who moved on. A year later, when the retainees had finished 2nd grade, they still fell short of the 2nd-grade performance of their promoted peers.
These findings were echoed in Reynolds's 1992 study of 1,200 minority children in Chicago. Twenty percent of the students in his sample were retained at least once between kindergarten and 3rd grade-more than twice the national average. When Reynolds tested their reading skills, he found poor performers who had been promoted moved eight months ahead of their peers who had been retained. In mathematics, the promoted group gained seven months on their peers. By the time the retainees reached 3rd grade, Reynolds found they were still only working at a 2nd-grade level.
Lorrie Shepard has seen similar results in her research. She has conducted several studies on the effects of retention—in particular, its relationship to the dropout rate. In a controlled 1992 study, she found students who repeated a year were 20 to 30 percent more likely to drop out of school. Another study, conducted in 1985 by the Association of California Urban School Districts, found that students who were retained twice had a probability of dropping out of nearly 100 percent.
However, the most recent addition to the retention literature is less condemning of the practice. Johns Hopkins researcher Alexander followed 775 students in Baltimore over a period of eight years; 53 percent were retained at least once, 14 percent more than once. His 1992 study, published in On the Success of Failure, found retention was harmless and, at times, offered small benefits.
Unlike most researchers, Alexander tracked students' progress before they were retained and found that retention halted failure that had begun in previous years. However, his interpretation of the findings was challenged by Shepard, who contends that test scores rose in retained groups because large numbers of the retainees were placed in special education and were therefore excused from standardized testing. Alexander disputes this claim. He says he's been cast as a "friend of retention," a label he dislikes. "I'm not enthusiastic about retention, but social promotion may be more of a disservice," says Alexander. "We need to find alternatives."
In fact, Holmes's review of retention research identified nine programs that take an alternative approach. He found that the studies with positive results shared several characteristics. Retained students in these studies "were identified early and given special help. An individualized and detailed educational plan was prepared for remediation purposes, and the children were placed in special classes with low student-teacher ratios," Holmes writes. However, when compared to a promoted control group that also received extra help, the retained students still lagged behind.
Reading is key
Without the ability to read, a student is virtually cut off from learning in every subject. Thus, the majority of retentions occur in 1st grade, even though researchers have found 1st-graders often benefit least from the practice.
However, researchers like Gilbert Gredler, author of School Readiness: Assessment and Educational Issues, say 1st grade offers educators a golden opportunity to identify and address a reading problem early. "I heard one teacher say to a mother, 'I'm pretty sure they'll need to be retained.' That was early in the school year," recalls Gredler. "Rather than giving up, that's when the teachers and the school have to come in with extra help, before retention is even considered."
In fact, a growing number of schools are stepping in with extra help in the form of one-on-one tutoring programs. Perhaps the best known is Reading Recovery, a preventive program that works with students who are performing in the bottom 20 percent of their class.
According to two studies conducted by researchers in the late 1980s, Reading Recovery students substantially outperformed control students on almost all measures of reading. Researchers found the program reduced the number of retentions by 9 percent.
"This is absolutely an alternative to retention," says Ohio State University's Gay Su Pinnel, the program's director. "We should think about reducing retention before it reaches the point of having to retain. This is our greatest chance."
After-school programs have also gained popularity as a way to avoid retaining students, but Johns Hopkins University professor Olatokunbo Fashola says there's little research on their effectiveness.
"After-school programs have become very hot," says Fashola, who reviewed 25 programs for the U.S. Department of Education. "But in many studies, they don't use control groups, the students are self-selected, and they rely on interviews to gather information."
One exception is the Exemplary Center for Reading Instruction (ECRI) based in Salt Lake City. This program employs teachers as tutors after school who use a variety of instructional methods in an attempt to reach all learners. In a study of students in grades 2 through 7 in Tennessee, researchers found the ECRI students significantly outperformed those in the control group on the Stanford Achievement Test in reading comprehension and vocabulary. And in North Carolina, administrators were able to track a 20 percent drop in retention over a two-year period of using the ECRI program.
Reforming an entire school costs more, takes longer, and is significantly more risky. But Robert Slavin, founder of the much-researched program Success For All, says schoolwide reform has distinct advantages for serving kids who need extra help.
"The problem with simply tutoring is you can't tutor everybody. Here, you're serving a much larger number of kids," says Slavin, who's based at Johns Hopkins. "If you have a comprehensive approach with good evidence of effectiveness, then the school has a good chance of getting large-scale improvements."
Research suggests that Success For All can have a significant impact. A study in the Baltimore schools found 1st-grade students were about three months ahead of matched control students in reading. By the time they reached 5th grade, they scored a full grade level higher. The program also strives to eliminate retention as a matter of policy.
Mandatory summer school
In 1996, after years of banning student retention, the Chicago public schools reintroduced a retention policy. This time, however, it offered students a second chance. Any 3rd-, 6th-, or 8th-grader performing one or two years below grade level in math and reading is now required to attend summer school. At the end of the summer, they can retake the Iowa Test of Basic Skills; if they pass, they're promoted with their classmates.
The school district supplies summer school teachers with lesson plans and a schedule to follow, which focuses solely on reading and math skills. The district's approach has quickly been adopted by other urban districts, including Washington, DC, Milwaukee, Denver, Long Beach, CA, and the 89,000-student Gwinnett County, GA, district.
But of all the interventions being touted as alternatives to retention, mandatory summer school is the least studied. In 1997, the second year of Chicago's new policy, 41,000 students were assigned to summer school. Approximately 16,000 passed the Iowa Test and were promoted; 17,700 did not pass and were retained; and about 7,000 did not finish and were automatically retained. A review by the Chicago Panel on School Policy found 70 percent of the students achieved some gains over the summer.
"It's definitely too early to assess the program's effectiveness," says Barbara Beull, director of the Chicago Panel. "There have been a few small studies, but nothing scientific." Some researchers criticize the use of the Iowa Test as the sole criteria for advancement. Others are keeping an eye on the number of students retained after completing the mandatory summer program. If the summer bridge is effective, then that number should decrease.
Retention retains support
Still, the number of students retained in Chicago, and in many other districts, is on the rise. The question is whether the increased use of interventions will change the impact of retention on these students.
Lorrie Shepard agrees there's a need for more interventions to help struggling students. But, she argues, the extra help will go further when students are promoted. "Students should receive help in the context of their grade-level courses," says Shepard. "Students are usually behind in one area but not in others. Let's not have everything held up by the fact that they need help."
Karen Kelly is a freelance writer based in Albany, NY.