Question to ask in grade retention debate: Will student have different experience?

iStock_000004579760XSmallGrade retention, if anything, has become an even more popular practice since the passage of No Child Left Behind, despite gathering evidence challenging the benefits of repeating grades, says a study in the American Journal of Education.

In view of the pressures on schools to meet standards, the debate on retention could be refocused, say the researchers. So far, the research has dwelled largely on the question, do students who repeat grades experience more negative than positive consequences?

A more salient question in the current high-stakes environment, say the authors of the study, is not, should students be retained? but what is happening with the student during the year when a grade is being repeated? What interventions do students receive? What are the learning needs of these students? How do teachers shape students’ academic experiences prior to and during the academic year?

“Our findings suggest that much more formal discussion needs to be placed on how to address students’ learning-related difficulties once they have been identified,” the researchers write in their study of Chicago’s Ending Social Promotion policy.

Ending social promotion in Chicago

In 1996, Chicago Public Schools adopted a policy to end social promotion for 3rd-, 6th- and 8th-graders if they did not pass the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) for their grade levels.

As part of a larger study of the Chicago initiative, researchers followed 102 low-achieving African-American and Latino 6th and 8th graders from 5 elementary schools. For this specific study, researchers tracked 22 of 26 students from that group who did not pass the ITBS and were retained (the other 4 students were missing data and could not be included in the study).

Chicago students get a second chance to take the ITBS after participating in Summer Bridge, a mandatory remedial summer program. Students are encouraged to participate in a large-scale after-school program called Lighthouse both prior to and during the retained years. Beyond these programs, decisions about supports for retained students were left to individual principals.

One goal of the study was to examine what additional support was provided. After analyzing transcripts of interviews with the retained students, their teachers and parents, the researchers found little evidence of remediation strategies for retained students.

Among the study’s findings: Retained students reported that their classroom experiences felt similar to the prior year, that teachers did not modify content in class for them and did not provide individualized attention.

Teachers perceived children’s learning needs and their emotional and behavioral responses to retention to be very heterogeneous. However, they had difficulty characterizing students’ problems in cases where there were multiple barriers contributing to students being retained.

Teachers vague on barriers

“The lack of specificity in how teachers discuss individual students and their problems raises questions as to the degree to which teachers focused on diagnosing and targeting their students’ learning needs,” the authors write.

Based on interviews with teachers, researchers identified three subgroups of retained students. Teachers characterized the retained students as:

  • slow learners;
  • unmotivated learners; or
  • having a combination of academic deficits and behavioral problems.

Interestingly, slow and unmotivated learners were much more likely to receive instructional and relational supports; only two of nine retained students in the 3rd subgroup, which had both learning and behavioral problems, received supports.

Students who received supports were more likely to report a change in strategy and/or learning during their retained year and to meet the standards for promotion, the study says. A change in learning strategies would be an important factor in assessing the impact of being retained, the authors add.

“That the Chicago policy did not specify what students should experience during the retained year may have implied to school administrators and teachers that nothing different was expected of them,” the researchers write. “In fact, the lack of variation suggests that loose structuring of the retained year–without clear directives to individual schools, principals, or teachers–may set the conditions that result in ‘recycled’ retention interventions.”

Future research should focus on more intensive explorations of student and teacher perspectives and experiences of retention, the authors conclude. While there are pressures on schools to continue the practice of retaining students, “it is imperative that districts and states implement retention with as much precision and care as possible.”

“Same Old, Same Old? Students’ Experiences of Grade Retention under Chicago’s Ending Social Promotion Policy” by Susan Stone and Mimi Engel. American Journal of Education, August 2007, Volume 113, pp. 605-634.

Published in ERN September 2007 Volume 20, Number 6

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