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The Road Not Traveled

Promotion or retention? Struggling students fare better in the largely uncharted gray area.

He called her Sunshine. But it was more of a hope than a true reflection of the high school senior's life. "I had never seen this kid smile," says Principal Don B. Austin.

An assistant in his office at La Sierra High School in Riverside, Calif., the girl was drastically behind and would not graduate on time, despite efforts such as attending adult evening classes to catch up. Besides academic woes, she had an abusive boyfriend and a loving dad but no female to relate to at home.

One day Austin overheard the girl, who "keeps her emotions very tight," spilling her heart out to his secretary. Coincidentally, the school was on the verge of implementing a program that could help her and 28 other struggling seniors. Called NovaNET, the online system allows students to progress through curriculum at their own pace and pass a series of benchmark tests to recover credits. The girl agreed to give it a try.

"Test developers and scorers, superintendents, school boards, principals, teachers and parents don't get held back. Just the kids." -Sam Stringfield, research scientist, Johns Hopkins University

A few months later, as she walked to the stage for her diploma and threw her arms around her principal, Austin finally saw her live up to her nickname.

As Austin and others in Alvord Unified School District and elsewhere have discovered, solutions for students who fall beyond aren't limited to a choice between what educators often see as the lesser of two evils--social promotion and traditional grade retention.

Research shows that neither works in any significant way, explains Sam Stringfield, a principal research scientist at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools. What does seem to work, says Stringfield, who also serves on Baltimore's school board, are interventions that include preschool, in-class and afterschool support, Saturday classes, summer school and more professional development for teachers and principals.

"As a researcher, that's easy for me to say. As the vice chair of a big city's school board, ... finding the right combination of interventions is not so easy," he says. "Even if the correct 'cocktail' of ingredients were known, funding it would likely be challenging."

Highway Robbery?

Being held back can steal a student's dignity and cause a whole host of problems later on. Anthony Dallmann-Jones, director of the National At-Risk Education Network, remembers the day in 1976 when his son's first-grade teacher broke the news. She felt the student's emotional development called for repeating the grade.

"How do you explain to a five-and-a-half-year-old that your teacher thinks you're emotionally immature?" Dallmann-Jones says. "Here's a teacher who was nice all year, and then she said your friends are leaving but you're going to stay here."

While his son did finish school, enlist in the Air Force and eventually start a computer networking career, the experience had a lasting impact. "On that particular day, a little flame died in terms of his education," Dallmann-Jones says. "There were a lot of close calls there--many days I wondered if he was going to make it."

About three-quarters of grade-retention research shows that it doesn't improve academic achievement vs. promotion of similar students, says Mary Lee Smith, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Arizona State University. And, a single retention increases the likelihood of dropout by a factor of 10. Multiple repeaters fare worse. "If held back twice, it's almost a guarantee you'll drop out," Smith says.

Even a study showing some positive benefits of grade retention doesn't point to it as a cure. The book On the Success of Failure: A Reassessment of the Effects of Retention in the Primary School Grades (Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2002), based on the long-term Beginning School Study of students in Baltimore, reveals improved test scores and very little in the way of impaired sense of self among retained students.

Still, says co-author Karl Alexander, a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins, "The benefits we did see were not large enough to get these kids up to grade level." And repeaters were still much more likely than non-repeaters to drop out, which he speculates is due to the adjustment problems created when students "fall off the prescribed [education] timetable."

On the other hand, promoting a child who isn't ready is far from a solution. When Austin's district examined reasons for high school dropout, low skill levels topped the list. In Public Agenda's 2003 "Where We Are Now" report, a vast majority of parents, teachers, employers and professors (plus a majority of students) surveyed said that promoting a struggling child is worse than retaining that child.

Despite a lot of negative attention--including well-publicized bans on social promotion in Chicago and other big districts--the practice is still common. According to Public Agenda's report, 44 percent of teachers admitted to having passed students in the recent years who should have been held back.

Solution Slow-Down

The push to end social promotion is not new. "It gets rekindled from time to time as a political issue," says Smith, who spoke at the 2000 conference Ending Social Promotion: Early Lessons Learned, convened by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council of the Great City Schools.

A number of states and districts were prohibiting social promotion at the time, so interest was high, explains conference moderator Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy. Today, however, "in all the rhetoric of failing schools, test scores and all that, retention and social promotion [issues] are getting lost," he says.

Dallmann-Jones agrees. "It's a small flame, and we're working right now to put out the highest flames"--from budget cutbacks to school security to No Child Left Behind.

Bringing retention back to the front burner are testing mandates. More than half of all public school students today must pass an exit exam to graduate, according to a new CEP study. The movement worries Smith. "The states that have high-stakes testing policies are those that [research shows] have the highest dropout rates," she says.

"If held back twice, it's almost a guarantee that you'll drop out." -Mary Lee Smith, professor of educational leadership & policy studies

Three years ago, Farmington (N.M.) Municipal Schools welcomed a bill that requires eighth graders in the state to pass a proficiency test for promotion. "It was really our chance to ... look at our system that had been passing kids along. They were getting into high school and were not prepared," says Nancy Dunlap, director of curriculum and instruction.

In Texas, where third-graders must now pass a reading test for promotion, administrators may be tempted to retain second graders so those students' scores won't show up in third-grade testing, Smith says. "It makes school look more effective than it actually is."

With the focus on standards today, it's inevitable that some students won't meet expectations--whether it's due to weak teachers, ineffective schools, student choices or lack of parent involvement--and be retained, Stringfield says. "Yet test developers and scorers, superintendents, school boards, principals, teachers and parents don't get held back. Just the kids."

What to do? Maryland's state superintendent, Nancy S. Grasmick, recently assembled a task force of local and state officials to come up with new ways to help students,

particularly before the retention-or-promotion choice must be made.

Scenic Routes to Success

Education leaders identified five promising strategies for eliminating social promotion without increasing retention at the 2000 conference:

Instituting policies to end social promotion as part of a comprehensive school and teacher accountability effort. In Farmington, creating clear expectations for students in each grade level came first. A state-required academic contract gets students and parents on board by the second marking period if the student is not progressing adequately. Designed for grades 3-8, the contract states what the district will do to help the child, what the parent needs to do and what the child will be expected to do. All parties sign it. "Our goal is not so much to threaten with retention but to get everyone's attention," Dunlap says.

Administrators in Durham (N.C.) Public Schools are careful not to isolate promotion issues. Its policies are based on curriculum alignment, staff development, shared decision-making and initiatives such as a K-3 literacy program, says Associate Superintendent Bert L'Homme. A policy needs an infrastructure, he adds.

Using multiple measures of achievement to determine promotion or retention. "We felt that no one test reflects what a student has learned," Dunlap says. The Northwest Evaluation Association Learning Continuum, an assessments-based document, guides teachers in targeted instruction. Student scores indicate when to move individuals beyond the conventional curriculum and when to continue reinforcement of skills already introduced.

The tool is especially helpful in Farmington's Transition Academy, a program for students who aren't academically ready for high school. Administrators knew they couldn't simply retain these students. "When kids are physically and mentally looking at going to high school, they are not middle school kids anymore," Dunlap says. Students spend half the day at the Academy, located within the district's alternative high school, and the other half at their home high schools.

With hard work, they can reach the continuum benchmarks and earn high school credit for academy work. The potential is even there to enter high school the following year just shy of sophomore status--close enough to make up the credits and graduate on time, Dunlap adds. Of the 62 students in the academy last year, 58 were ready for high school the following year.

Providing extended learning opportunities for students at risk of retention. In Chicago, educators hope the new summer Step-Up program, for those who test well enough to be promoted but below the national average, will help avoid retention later. Districts should "give better education experiences and opportunities to kids before they fail--and not simply punish them after the fact for failing," Smith says. She values indirect routes to achievement and suggests more afterschool enrichment activities, such as poetry and debating clubs.

Restructuring the school day to provide more in-class support for students at risk of retention. Alexander is concerned about the "tug of war between out of school obligations and in-school obligations," he says. Students with heavy workplace or family commitments (such as looking after younger siblings) to shoulder need middle and high schools willing to make allowances. Higher education's transition to serving more weekend and part-time college students can provide guidance, he says. Secondary schools might consider five- or six-year education plans and ease-of-reentry programs.

Providing more professional support and assistance to teachers and principals. Not many would argue with Jennings about the need for more intensive and extensive instruction. Making it happen, he says, would take additional help for teachers during the school day, longer school days, longer school years and time for professional development. "We need more assistance," he says. "We've got policy. The NCLB Act is policy with a capital P."

Mapping It Out

Perhaps the people involved in a retention situation deserve that capital letter more. Parents will approach Keith Liddle, principal at Carrie Martin Elementary School in Colorado's Thompson School District, and say, "My child's not stupid." Liddle will concur, and then explain that everyone simply learns at different stages.

"Deciding to retain a child is never something that's done lightly," says L'Homme. "We rightfully worry about the effect that's going to have on the child. But to promote a child to the next grade level who has no chance of being successful is also a tragedy."

Some tips for avoiding problems:

Don't allow grade "repeats." New learning experiences, not a repeat of old ones, will help a child, Dallmann-Jones says. And since teachers know students best, they should have input in planning the new experience. At Farmington's Transition Academy, teachers also work to boost students' self-confidence and change their views of learning. They may enter the program without personal goals, but they leave with a vision of their future lives and the belief that success is in their hands.

Take cues from special education teachers. They use problem-solving approaches, know how to motivate kids, practice individualized instruction and make special accommodations for test-taking, as well as help students transition to middle and high school better than other teachers, Dallmann-Jones says. These are all strategies needed to help students at risk of retention and dropout. He suggests having special ed teachers run workshops on diagnostic assessment of students.

Consider multi-age classrooms and "partial retention" in early grades. Alexander sees them as possible alternatives "to the two draconian extremes" of social promotion and traditional retention.

Start small in development of alternative student programs. "It's easier to run with 30 than to drag 100," Dunlap says. Build on small successes and find individuals willing to tackle the challenge.

Help retained students' transition. Educational transition programs for new middle and high school students need to be fine-tuned for the "over-age school beginner," Alexander says, to help provide a smooth social adjustment period.

Be smart in collecting program data. "I'm very jaded about research ... that's been sponsored and paid for by the district," Smith says. If you can't have an outsider conduct the research, ask independent scholars to review it.

Speak up to policymakers. "Educators and administrators have to work with parents and community groups to convince [political leaders] to put their money where their policies are," Jennings says. Those who don't get involved in setting policy will have decisions made for them.

Offer long-term help. Continuing supplemental services for children that need them, rather than relying on one-shot fixes like summer school, are key to ensuring student success. "Catching up is hard enough to do, and then keeping up once kids are caught up is something we often lose sight of. One-shot remedies are often not remedies. It's doing something but not in a particularly meaningful way." DA

Volunteer Retention at Carrie Martin Elementary School, Loveland, Colo.

With all the research knocking retention, it's not surprising that administrators in Thompson School District in Colorado had an unofficial policy prohibiting it. "That was done rarely, if at all," says Keith Liddle, principal at Carrie Martin, which has about 265 students.

Then, in 1997, one of his second-grade teachers expressed concern about promoting a particular child and mentioned that the girl and her parents were in agreement about retention. The girl was allowed to stay back and before long she evolved into an A student.

Liddle saw the value of retention as part of a culture of higher expectations for all students. The school's staff agreed on where they want students to be by the time they leave for middle school, and teachers began gearing lessons toward top achievers, as opposed to average students. When all parties involved agree on retention and commit to doing their part to make it a positive experience, that choice is made. In the past six years, about 20 students have taken that route.

Giving students some decision-making power makes a difference, Liddle says. Staying back doesn't have a stigma at the school--it's just about a student needing some more time. Often students will choose to inform their peers themselves, and they're proud when they realize incoming students will view them as a classroom leader.

Liddle takes pride in seeing the students achieve, and pleased parents have spread their children's success stories by word of mouth. As a consultant for the Northwest Evaluation Association, Liddle widens the scope even further--letting other administrators know that retention can work.

Credit Recovery at La Sierra High School, Riverside, Calif.

Out with the old and in with the new. At La Sierra, the mantra applies not only to replacing retention with intervention, but also to the learning environment. In the school's NovaNET labs--where students can recover credits when they're short or get extra help in basic math or English skills--brand new furniture and flat-screen monitors look sharp and motivate students. Principal Don Austin remembers the original lab for the online curriculum and assessment system. "It was functional but it looked old and beat up, like it wasn't a priority. ... The kids would treat it like it was old and beat up," he says. Since the new lab, students from one class who had typically failed for missing sessions were suddenly racing to get to the room, because it happened to be one computer station short.

Last school year, about 450 of the school's 2,500 students used the NovaNET program for remediation, and about 150 needed it for credit recovery. It's also available for enrichment and for students to earn college credit. And the district now has an unlimited use contract for NovaNET, a Pearson product.

Students can't always fit lab time into their school day, so La Sierra keeps daily afterschool lab hours. "The impact on our students has been profound," Austin says. "Many of our students come from families that have never advanced beyond high school, and now they are increasing their academic skills, recovering credits, gaining confidence and earning college [credits]."

The teachers, who all happen to be athletic coaches as well, are a big reason for the program's success. "Every coach has a part of [him or her] that's a cheerleader, and these kids need that," Austin says, adding that they're excellent facilitators who "bring out the best in people."

Success Planning in Durham (N.C.) Public Schools

Experts agree. When a student must be retained, the experience can't simply be a mirror image of what didn't work the first time. It's a theory that Durham administrators practice.

For the past five-plus years in Durham, students have had to demonstrate grade-level skills proficiency before being promoted from third, fifth or eighth grade. Now state mandates require all districts to follow a similar procedure. Children have three opportunities to pass an end-of-grade proficiency test before the situation calls for retention. The third chance follows an intense School Year Plus summer remediation program in math and/or reading. A panel of teachers, the principal and a district curriculum specialist also have the opportunity to decide on special cases where a child's skills may not be evident from the test score. "You don't want a false negative," says Associate Superintendent Bert L'Homme.

When retention is the best option, the teacher, parent and child develop a School Success Plan. "It's really an attempt to get everyone singing from the same sheet of music," L'Homme says, adding that the plan is similar to a special education IEP.

Besides academics, it might cover behavior management and attendance issues. Teachers periodically review and principals monitor the plans, which become part of the child's K-8 portfolio (also containing measures of progress such as writing samples and a list of books read).

L'Homme explains that the plans work well as part of the district's culture of high expectations. As for progress, he says, "When I arrived six years ago, the state designated nine of our schools low-performing. And now we have none."

Melissa Ezarik is features editor.