There are few education issues that anger me more than massive retention of third graders based on one test score! Mississippi recently became the latest state to embrace retention. It’s a huge mistake. Adults fail children by not assisting them with their learning problems. Why is massive school retention terrible?
- A retained student doesn’t learn as well as a promoted student. Research shows that students held back learn slower and gains don’t last. Students who are promoted make more growth especially if their learning problems are addressed.
- It is based on one test! There is a mistaken assumption that the test is a perfect measure of all a child knows. The questions are selected by a monolithic publishing company, like Pearson, who knows nothing else about the child.
- It’s hard to find research that supports retention. The American Psychological Association and the American Educational Research Association are just two organizations against using a single score to retain students. Researchers have combed through hundreds of studies and they indicate retention doesn’t work and is often harmful.
- Retained students often drop out of school later. The association between retention and dropping out of school is real. The older a student is when they are retained, the more likely it is they will drop out.
- Some children aren’t test-takers. Children, even gifted students, might dislike tests and not do well. Or, they get nervous taking a test.
- Politicians have not done their homework. Retention might sound good, but making a student repeat the same class is like being Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. If you don’t get it the first time around, why would you understand it when you repeat? What if a student still doesn’t do well after they repeat? Students need new approaches to learning.
- More disadvantaged, black males get retained. More black males attending poor schools wind up being retained. Students who don’t have access to schools with resources and qualified teachers won’t likely do well in school.
- It is developmentally inappropriate. Visit a middle school class of sixth graders and you will be able to pick out the students who flunked (what kids call it). They reached puberty before their classmates. These students are often bullied or they become bullies.
- Retention for children is shaming. Think about the pain of watching your classmates move ahead while you are made to stay with younger children. Retention fits into the ugly “no excuses” climate that is damaging to children.
- Retained students usually have behavior difficulties later. Most students who fail will harbor anger especially when they get to middle and high school.
- Parents like it for other children. Many parents who support retention don’t want it for their own children.
- Retention is not innovative. Retention is a bad practice with a bad track record that has been around for years.
- Retention is costly. Making children repeat a class puts strain on the teacher and increases class size. It costs the school district and the taxpayers money.
If you don’t retain a child, what do you do if they are behind their peers? Social promotion doesn’t seem right either. There are much better solutions and here are a few:
- Lowering class size. If teachers have fewer students, especially early on, they will be better able to address individual learning needs.
- Providing age-appropriate preschools. Children who start out with rich early learning experiences, with exposure to play, good picture books and literary experiences, will likely have better learning results when they start school.
- Give teachers time to work with students. Teachers need to be freed from the shackles of high-stakes standardized testing so they can better understand reading disabilities.
- Kindergarten redshirting. If a child is younger than their classmates at the start of kindergarten they might be redshirted. Redshirting is having a child start kindergarten a year later. This isn’t always an easy decision.
- Evaluate the child for learning disabilities. A school psychologist should do a battery of tests to determine why a student isn’t progressing. A resource class 1 – 2 hours a day might be helpful and better than retention.
- Check on the child’s life situation. Children with personal problems can’t focus on school. There might be an illness or divorce in the family. Maybe a parent lost a job. When such problems are resolved the child could get back on their feet.
- It might be developmental. Some students learn a little slower. A growth spurt might be around the corner!
- Loop classes. Schools combine classes like first and second grade, and students have the same teacher, allowing the teacher more time to understand the student. It may give students time to catch up.
- Multi-level or multi-age classes. Several grades in a small setting with students working together—the one room schoolhouse idea—might assist a child.
- Tutoring. Enlist the assistance of high school students looking for service activities. And/or bring in volunteers from local businesses so they can learn about the difficulties facing students.
- Summer school. This might give the child more attention and a smaller more relaxed class setting, but they should get some vacation too!
- Absences might mean retention. Some children are immature and miss a lot of school. If they are small and have not bonded with classmates, retention might be a valid consideration—especially in kindergarten. This is not based on one test score but serious consideration of much information.
Suzanne Whitney, a research editor for Wrightslaw, provides excellent information about how to fight mandatory retention. The information is primarily for Florida, but those in other states could benefit. It is called: 10 Strategies to Fight Mandatory Retention & Other Damaging Policies.