Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Stuck in a State of Education Limbo: What to do with Students who are Being Considered for Retention? What do we do about Social Promotion?

During the recent NY State ELA Exam, I proctored my eighth grade class as they focused and read through each passage and bubbled in the answers to the corresponding questions that they were being asked. As I looked at my students working to get at least a “three” (the score students need to achieve to show that they are at grade level), I realized that more than half of them were not ready for the challenges awaiting them in high school. A few had the work ethic and the determination to succeed at the next level, but many of them lacked the necessary skills to analyze and discuss Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, let alone write an expository essay on these two staples of high school reading. As I walked around, I sadly contemplated how I was going to catch these students up in the span of a few months.

Towards the end of the year, our grade level team meeting needed to decide which students needed to be retained and which ones were to be moved up to the ninth grade. I whispered with other teachers as to who should be retained or not, and we all agreed that many of them lacked the grades, the test scores, and work ethic to succeed at the next level. We made a list of possible retention candidates, and when the whole process was done, ONLY six students were being retained when many more could have been held back. When I left this meeting, I couldn’t believe that only six students were being retained. There were so many other students who lacked the reading and writing skills to survive the academic challenges awaiting them in high school. At the time, I was convinced that retention was the best option for these students and for the high school teachers who would struggle to catch these students up. But then, I thought, what about the students who were coming into next year’s eight grade? How would I teach the low-achieving students who are being retained as well as the new students? Would holding them back one more year REALLY make a difference?

I realized I needed to understand the big picture of social premonition. I needed to look at all the sides of this heated debate and understand what was at stake. In “Foundations of American Education: Perspectives on Education in a Changing World,” Johnson, Musial, Hall, Gollnick, & Dupuis (2008) include a debate between John Mohl, a teacher at Cedarbook Middle School in Wyncote Pennsylvia, and Jennifer Slifer, a teacher at Thomas Edison Magnet Middle School in Meriden Connecticut, who share differing opinions on the use of social promotion and retention. Mohl argues, “Social promotion has three detrimental effects on the educational system…Socially promoted students monopolize teacher attention, and other students’ learning opportunities are limited as a result.” He then mentions that social promotion “sends a message to students that they can move on to the next level even if they lack the required knowledge or effort,” and it “distances schools from their goals of fulfilling No Child Left Behind standards.” Slifer also agrees that social promotion is wrong, but she believes that retention ultimately fails low-achieving students, “Research shows that retained students do not improve their academic performance compared with similar counterparts who were promoted, and retained students struggle with self-esteem” (Johnson et. al, 2008). Through their words, we are able to see some of the major issues that are at play when discussing social promotion and retention.

I also wanted to know what effect retention had on students who were left back. Unfortunately, what I found was very unsettling. In “Low Test Scores + High Retention Rates = More Dropouts”, C.T. Holmes (2006) includes this horrific statistic, “Grissom and Shepard (1989), using data on 117,612 students, calculated that after accounting for achievement, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, a single retention was related to an 18 to 28 percent increase in the chance of dropping out.” He then goes on to say, “The literature is unanimous in linking retention to dropping out” (Holmes, 2006). I realized that retention was simply not working and needed to be improved drastically in order to be effective, or it had to be eliminated completely.

From my own experiences, a student who is very dear to me and had just graduated was retained this past year. From what I heard from her previous teachers, she improved tremendously in terms of her behavior and her work ethic. Even though I was thrilled that she had improved so much and was moving on to high school, I knew that she still lacked the reading and writing skills that an eighth grader should have acquired by the end of middle school. In learning about the strong correlation between retention and dropping out, I fear for the future of this special young lady. In talking about maintaining a students sense of self-esteem, is it right to delay what many of us see as the inevitable? Should we push these students onward even through we know they will be met with failure in the near future? Do we simply hope that they “get it together”? Unfortunately, we are back to the same questions.

What do we do about social promotion in our schools? What do we do about these kids?

In an attempt to find a solution, I looked for strategies that we can use to help prevent social promotion or retention from occurring in the first place. C.T. Holmes (2006) advises, “Proven alternatives to retention exist. Among other effective ways to assist the struggling learner are systematic individual student plans and instruction, individual assistance, and the use of frequent assessment of progress to adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of the learner.” The central problem with retention is that students who are retained usually repeat the same form pf instruction and assessments that have already failed them. Holmes suggests schools and their districts need to differentiate their instruction for students that are retained and individualize the way they learn information. These students need to be assessed regularly to see how they understand and learn from the curriculum that is established for them.

In “Wrestling with Retention,” Karen E. Devries and Carl A. Cohn (1998) document the massive overhauling of the retention criteria that began taking place in the late 1990s in Long Beach, California. They reported that the superintendents of these districts, along with teachers, administrators, and parents discussed retention in an effort to prevent any child from falling behind in school. In working together for many months and years, they came up with a framework that follows these three key points:

* Retention programs would not be a repeat of services but provide a significantly different academic experience for retained children;
* Multiple measures, based on proficiency with content standards, would be used for retention criteria;
* Interventions would be prescribed at key, nonretention grades to ensure all children would have every opportunity to attain grade-level standards (Devries and Cohn, 1998).

The schools in Long Beach also offered numerous means of intervention, such as, “an extended day/week, such as Saturday school; extended year through summer school and intersessions; one-on-one tutorials, including peer, cross-age and Rotary/Rolling Readers; intensive, 6- to 8-week reading clinics; intense, small-group instruction by specially trained teachers; and adult mentors” (Devries and Cohn, 1998).

If these same measures were taken in other school districts across the US, students, teachers, and entire communities could benefit from actions that help prepare students to be ready for the next grade. Students would have every opportunity to catch up if they have fallen behind and, if they were retained, students would practice their skills through alternative means of instruction. Long Beach has learned that this process has required an exhausting amount of hard work and dedication. Hearing this, I think this is the least that we can do to drastically alter the future of our students in a positive way.


Holmes, C. T. (2006). Low test scores + high retention rates = more dropouts. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 42(2), 56-58. Retrieved July 14, 2009, from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ724627&site=ehost-live

Johnson, J.A., Musial, D., Hall, G.E., Gollnick, D.M., & Dupuis, V.L. (2008). Foundations of American education: Perspectives on education in a changing world (14th ed.). New York: Pearson Education, Inc.

Karen E Devries, & Carl A Cohn. (1998, August). Wrestling with retention. School Administrator, 55(7), 24. Retrieved July 14, 2009, from ProQuest Education Journals. (Document ID: 32517198).

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