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.
Roger Titcombe says
I assume that this refers to preventing children from moving on with their peers to year-group specific classes. This is one of the few very bad ideas from the US that we have not introduced (yet) into the English system.
Nancy is right that this is terrible for all the reasons she gives.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Roger. Good for the U.K! I hope it stays that way.
John S says
I came years late to this thread but have to comment. I was the 3rd grade boy who did terrible in math. I come from a time where threatening and embarrassing a child was common place. I was painfully shy and being called out in class continually for doing poorly was just horrible.
Other kids laughing at me while the teacher egged it on. Sending an already shy and nervous kid to the principals office to be shamed more was awful and cruel. Having said all that I know I needed extra help.
I wanted to do good. But the way the school approached it was a dead end for me. Anyway I was held back in a very small school and everybody knew it. Surprising was how much the older kids picked on me about it..I knew I wasn’t smart.. I didn’t need daily reminders. That experience has made a very lonely life.
Nancy Bailey says
What an insensitive teacher! I’m sorry you had such a tough time, John, but thanks for sharing. I hope you can put it behind you and move on. Know that you’re not alone. I know so many people who had lousy school experiences and I could tell some stories too, but the key is to let it go or at least to try. I wish you the best.
John s says
Thanks Ms. Nancy.. Having said all that I blame myself. I should have been stronger and stood up for myself.. It’s been many years but the stigma remains. I truly tried hard in school but other than knowing how to read and write I have a hard time with numbers.math… Anyone reading this please don’t do what I did. I’ve hidden from the world. I’ve lived in fear people would see the real me.. My social life as young person ended before it started.
Social media bullying in this day and age is just awful for struggling young people. Once that target gets painted on ones back it’s there.. 🙁
John Mountford says
Nancy, this is, as Roger points out, one idea to come out of the US that has not yet been suggested by our ‘enlightened political leaders’. Let’s prey it never is! The truth is, however, we may be only a degree away from exposing our kids to a similar kind of ‘punishment’ as you describe in this very informative piece.
One of the latest edicts on testing in England says that those children who do not achieve a Level 4 in the subjects tested (average attainment according to the ‘experts’) at the end of their primary schooling will be required too re-sit them at the end of their first year in secondary education (Yr 7). Bad, bad, bad, for so many of the reasons you point to.
Apart from the utterly daft idea that all children can be at least average, what thought has been given to the impact of such practices on children and young people? NONE!!
Maybe it’s time for an international campaign to give childhood back to children. Can I count on your support?
Roger Titcombe says
John Mountford and I comment regularly on Local Schools Network
England (but not Scotland) is suffering from ‘Reforms’ that spring from the same US ideological sources that are debated so usefully on Nancy’s site. I echo John Mountford’s suggestion that just as the sources are transatlantic, so should be the opposition. We should work together, learn from each other, and post blogs and comments freely on both US and UK based forums..
US based readers may also be interested in the posts on my own website, which is regularly accessed from outside the UK.
This post may be of particular interest as it features the work of the American Economist Daniel Kahneman, whose ideas have much relevance to schooling and how children’s cognition can best be developed..
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you John and Roger! You both might be interested in the blog by P.L. Thomas. The Becoming Radical. This is an interesting post and refers to the U.K. rejecting retention. It looks like this is unfortunately unique among countries.
I was surprised to not see competency or mastery based learning as a possible solution. Once children master a skill, they move up. It keeps the students right where they need to be until they are ready, whether it is a short time or a long time.
It also means that students who struggle or excel in certain areas aren’t tied to that grade while they catch up or advance. Why have someone repeat third grade who did fine in all subjects but reading? If she received an A in third grade math, why learn it again because she struggled in reading?
I really despise the either-or of retention or social promotion. My wife has been volunteering in kindergarten and knows of some students not ready to move to first grade. How devastating to be told you have to repeat kindergarten, your first educational experience. How discouraging to start first grade and not be able to do the work expected. There has to be a better solution! My suggestion is competency-based learning.
Roger Titcombe says
Sorry Joshua, but it is all rather more complicated than that. Anyone with a deep interest in this issue seeking a coherent explanation of how and why a marketised education ideology has caused this mess is recommended to read my book..
While it is written in the context of the English education system there is much that transfers directly to what is happening in the US.
It was really difficult to read this one – we retained our son in Kindergarten. The recommendation was for him to repeat K in the same public school which I knew would be a huge mistake. His sisters were there and he would have been a target for all kinds of bullying. So we moved him to a private school where he did repeat K but he had a fresh start and I think that helped. Through the years I worried we had made a mistake. He was so much older than his classmates. He came close to not graduating because he was 19 and didn’t see the relevance. But eventually he did and has found his passion in cars. Would I advise another parent to do the same? Years later I’m still debating that one!
Nancy Bailey says
Hi Sally, Thank you for such a sincere comment. As parents we all make decisions based on the information we have on hand, believing we do what’s best for our children. I am happy your son found his passion! I know young people and old who never really do! I hope everything continues to work out well.
TTU Grad student says
You mentioned research. Can you point me in that direction, since I didn’t see any referenced? Not questioning you, but I’m struggling to find published quantifiable research or data to support many of the claims you made. Particularly on sub populations, graduation rates, and behavioral issues.
Thanks in advance,
TTU Grad Student
Nancy Bailey says
Sure. I would look up the research of Shane Jimerson. Good luck!
Children can feel left behind if their needs are not being met and they move up a grade anyway. While repeating the year might not be the answer, relentlessly moving forward regardless doesn’t work either. Kids in that position give up. They then tend to mess around and show behaviour issues. This leads to low self-esteem because of frequent detentions and other consequences of poor behaviour. Interventions within the classroom can still lead to bullying as other students are aware of the help or different work that these children are being given.
Even if they can’t repeat the year for all the reasons you say they have to be given some opportunity to keep up. Not all children learn to talk at the same age, not all children learn to walk at the same age. Yet somehow once school starts they are all expected to make progress academically at the same rate.
I think the best suggestion is to have smaller classes with two or three grades in one class. Then children could move through at their own pace, not necessarily needing to repeat a whole year but just moving forward at the right pace for them. I have seen this work in a very small primary school I used to work at. The kids were in small classes covering two grades (year groups in the UK), some who had real difficulties did stay back in their class for longer. This worked fine because the younger ones in the class were still the familiar faces. A Y1 and Y2 class might retain one child not ready to go up to Y3. The previous year’s Y1 kids now Y2 would still be familiar with that child and continue to be his classmates.
It’s also helpful in the other direction because the fast learners can move through a little quicker and be given the same task.
Nancy Bailey says
I agree very much with your last part, which, if it is happening, means no retention is necessary.
My biggest concern with retention is how painful it might be for the child and what happens later when they have advanced physical development. I saw this in middle school. It is likely why so many children who are retained go on to drop out of school.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Frances.
I’m in tears reading this. One thing I would add is red shirting can be equally damaging if a student is significantly older. Children are not known to accommodate differences and age is no exception. I’ve known kids who hated their birthdays or refused to enroll in drivers ed when they became eligible because they were embarassed to only be in 9th grade. And then there is the issue of being accused of statutory rape for students over the age of 18 who engage in relations with younger classmates and a legal system that does not accommodate such circumstances.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks for your comment, Ari. You’ve pointed out additional issues I’d not considered. Also agree about redshirting if children are older. Always have to consider many variables and recognize the seriousness of retention.
I have a mid November birthday and grew up in an area where the majority of parents waited until their children’s fifth birthday to start kindergarten so I was certainly not the oldest. But then in fifth grade moved to an area where it was not common and left me as the oldest. It became very hard to justify. I can not imagine what it would have been like to be six months older and on track to graduate high school at nineteen.
I concede it was the best decision starting kindergarten later as I have a mild disability but maturation is not linear and I would have been better served if I could have spent the last two years of high school in community college but my school scrapped the dual enrollment program the year I was to be eligible and my diagnosis was weaponized against me when I petitioned.
I just hope that it can be avoided and there can be infrastructure in place so that older students do not feel infantilized.