Friday, April 18, 2014

Attention, Not Retention

If the CCSS test-based accountability leads to more student retention, we all will be the losers.

So what happens if students don’t score in the proficient or better range in the upcoming tests aligned with the Common Core? In many states, either by law or by policy, students will be retained in their current grade. Retention in third grade is the law in Florida and Arizona when children are not proficient in reading by the end of third grade. In New York City parents are told that “students with the lowest 10 percent of raw (total) scores on the State tests were recommended… for retention and summer school (FAQ for Families).” Many other states are considering such policies.

Retaining students in their grade, whether driven by standardized test scores, poor grades or misbehavior, has long been popular in American education. Even among teachers and administrators, retention is often seen as a way either well-meaningly to give a child “the gift of a year” to grow or more punitively as a way to threaten and cajole miscreants.

Retaining a child in a grade is a momentous decision in the life of that child and that family. Parents, full of hope and dreams for their child, may find their view the child as a learner permanently altered. It very likely will negatively impact the way the child views himself or herself as a learner. Given the high stakes, educators better be sure they get the decision right when they decide to retain.

Does retention work? While there may be some anecdotal evidence that retention may work for some children some time, the overwhelming research evidence indicates that retention is bad for kids.

In their well-documented and very useful book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, respected researchers David Berliner and Gene V. Glass, take on this issue. Here is what they have to say on the topic:

The decision to retain a student subsequently results in that student having more negative outcomes in all areas of academic achievement, and in social emotional areas of development such as peer relationships, self-esteem, and classroom behavior.

Additionally, Berliner and Glass found that there is greatly increased likelihood of retained students dropping out of school, being suspended and having high absenteeism. Not surprisingly, retention policies impact a disproportionate number of poor and minority children, further exacerbating the “achievement gap.”

So, if not retention, what? Social promotion, the promoting of students to the next grade even though they did not meet the standards of the previous grade, is widely derided by people in and out of the public education field, perhaps justly so. There is something about social promotion that smacks of educators abandoning their responsibility. Fortunately, this is not an either or situation. Instead of retention, what struggling students need is attention.

It costs, on average, about 11,000 dollars to retain a child (the cost of an extra year of school). By not retaining children, schools will save thousands of dollars in costs, not to mention all the human costs related to high drop-out rates and behavior issues related to retention. With this money schools need to give students the attention they need, in the form of programs that Berliner and Glass, among others, have found to be effective. Individual tutoring, summer programs and early intervention programs, such as Reading Recovery, have been shown to be effective ways to provide struggling students with the attention needed to “catch-up.” For high-poverty areas, the money could also be better spent on early childhood programs, wrap around health programs and smaller class sizes.

Retaining students is a shortcut answer to a problem that actually works against our goals as educators. Educators would do better to attend to their struggling students with programmatic changes than with this mean spirited “hold them back” approach.

Let us attend to our struggling students, not condemn them to the false promise of improvement through grade retention.