Feature

Retention vs. Social Promotion

Schools face pressure to hold back students, but research yields little support for such actions by Donna Harrington-Lueker


After nearly two years of a strict new promotion policy, 8th graders in Durham, N.C., already know the drill: If they’re not performing at grade level or better on North Carolina’s end-of-grade tests in reading and mathematics, they run the risk of being held back.

This past summer, in fact, 661 students--nearly one of every three 8th graders in the district--were required to attend summer school because of failing test scores. If these students make sufficient progress, they’ll become 9th graders this fall. If not, they’ll stay in the 8th grade another year.

Nor are Durham’s 8th graders the only students facing retention. This past summer, more than 700 5th graders had to meet similarly strict requirements. Next year, 2nd graders could be affected.

"We just believe that if you assess children earlier, you’ll be able to identify more of their needs," David Holdzkom, the district’s assistant superintendent of research, development and accountability, says of Durham’s approach.

Full-Speed Ahead
Nationwide, a growing number of school districts have adopted retention policies, often abandoning social promotion programs that pushed students ahead with their peers regardless of achievement and putting in place strict new promotion standards.

The Chicago Public Schools has led the way. In 1997, after passing a get-tough retention policy, the district identified 42,000 students who were at risk of being retained because they were not performing at grade level in reading and mathematics on standardized tests. Of those students, 3,000 8th graders were not allowed to start high school last fall. This year, the school system has targeted 130,000 students in the 3rd, 6th, and 8th grades who are at risk of being held back.

In New York City, too, Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew has asked the school board to overturn its 10-year-old social promotion policy and hold back 4th and 7th graders who perform poorly. If the school board agrees, the policy could begin in the year 2000.

Last spring, too, Congress introduced legislation that would pump $1.5 billion into 50 high-poverty urban and rural school districts on the condition that the districts adopt high standards and eliminate social promotion.

Schools in Gwinnett County and Fulton County, Ga., Fairfax County, Va., Oakland, Calif., Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, Corpus Christi, Texas, and Springfield, Mass., are also either considering strict promotion requirements or already have done so.

"We have to have some gateways or benchmarks," says Springfield Superintendent Peter Negroni of that district’s efforts. In Springfield, that’s meant making summer school a condition for promotion for 3rd, 6th, and 9th graders who haven’t kept pace with their peers.

States have responded as well. In Texas, more than 16,000 seniors failed to graduate this year because they did not pass portions of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. In Illinois, many school systems were caught off guard when the state schools superintendent this year put an end to social promotion and set new standards for graduation and promotion. And in Virginia, which has adopted strict statewide content standards and assessments, state officials are urging schools to have students repeat a grade if they fail state exams given for the first time this past spring.

"There’s just been a huge swing of the pendulum," says Arthur J. Reynolds, a professor of social work in the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison of the new emphasis on retention.

A Failed Practice?
The renewed interest in retention has many educators concerned, though. State legislators and other policymakers have increasingly adopted the view that accountability and retention go hand in hand. And, many acknowledge there is a commonsense argument for retaining students in grade.

"If we continue to promote students who aren’t making the grade, where are they going to be later on?" asks Veronica White, a research analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "If they’re not reading at grade level, you’re going to pay for it one way or the other."

A study of elementary school students in the Baltimore Public Schools has also suggested that students are not necessarily helped by the practice. Though these students, who were retained for only one year, didn’t completely catch up with their peers, their test scores, grades and self-esteem did increase, the study shows.

"It’s far from the ideal solution," says Karl Alexander, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University and the director of the study, which has tracked nearly 800 Baltimore City students for the last 16 years. But it does "buy them extra time. … It’s an opportunity for them to consolidate their skills."

At the same time, research has shown consistently that one of the strongest predictors of students’ dropping out of school is the number of times a child has been retained in grade, many educators say.

In addition, students who have been retained typically have been required simply to repeat the same curriculum they’ve already failed--a prescription for failure, some research suggests. When these children finally are promoted, they often end up on a school’s lowest academic track studying a watered-down curriculum that ensures they’ll remain behind.

"Research shows that children don’t get better over time, especially if they’re held back as 1st graders," says Reynolds, who has followed a cohort of students in the Chicago Public Schools. According to Reynolds’s work, children who are retained in 1st grade are usually among the most underperforming students, and when they are retained in grade, they fall further behind.

Retention also seems to take its greatest toll on poor or minority children, says Anne Wheelock, a consultant with the National Coalition of Advocates for Children. According to the National Educational Longitudinal Survey for 1988, one in five 8th graders has repeated at least one grade. Among low-income families, though, that number rises to one in three, Wheelock says. In addition, as many as 40 percent of poor, African-American and Latino students have been held back at least one year, according to the survey.

"The assumption often seems to be that somehow we’ll wring better performance from students if we simply expect better performance from them," says Wheelock of the new get-tough policies.

An Uncertain Future
Wheelock offers another caution as well. In the mid-’80s, after the publication of A Nation at Risk, some school systems embraced retention. In Boston, for example, Wheelock says, as many as 30 percent of 1st graders were held back in 1985 as a result of a strict new promotion policy.

Under Boston’s recently adopted promotion policy, some of those same students could be held back again. "We just don’t know what will happen when they hit these new walls," says Wheelock, who opposed the Boston plan.

Such uncertainty is one reason the Gwinnett County, Ga., Public Schools delayed the start of its gateway exams until the year 2000. (The district will pilot the exams next year.) "We needed to get a handle on how many are in danger of retention and the kinds of interventions we needed to put in place," says Berney Kirkland, the district’s director of community relations. One option the district is considering is providing more reading specialists in its elementary schools.

Kathy Christie, a policy specialist with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, agrees that identifying a variety of interventions is key. "In this climate, schools can’t see retention and social promotion as the only answers. ... [They’re] going to have to have a bag of tricks," says Christie.

Districts Respond
Some districts are already building such a support system. Part of a national network of school districts involved in standards-based reform, the Fayette County, Ky., Public Schools has established benchmarks for student performance and provisions for retaining students who don’t meet the standards. At the same time, though, the district is investigating ways it can help students keep up. One option under consideration is a language immersion program for students who aren’t reading on grade level, says Superintendent Peter Flynn. Such a course would provide intensive instruction in reading and language arts rather than traditional remedial instruction.

Some schools in the district are also changing the way they offer courses. At Henry Clay High School, year-long courses are broken into quarters that students are able to start at any time during the year. That way, a student who falls behind at midyear still has a chance to make progress. "You don’t want students to find themselves in a position where no matter what they do they’re going to fail," says Flynn.

Durham is backing up its retention policy with a revamped summer school program and a systemwide literacy plan. Students in 5th and 8th grade who are required to attend summer school, for example, are tested the first day of the program and are given an individualized education program, says Holdzkom. At the end of the program, students are tested again to gauge their progress, and their test scores are sent to the student’s principal, who decides whether the youngster will be promoted.

"It’s easier to make decisions [about retention] than it was before because principals have better information," says Holdzkom. Among the information principals have at hand: the student’s grades, teacher reports, test scores, and descriptions of any special services that might be available.

At the same time, the school system has also adopted a district wide literacy program that emphasizes reading at every grade level, says Assistant Superintendent Bert L’Homme. Every school in the district, including all middle schools and high schools, have at least one staff member who has received special training in reading. (The district uses a combination of Reading Recovery and so-called balanced literacy frameworks, both well-known approaches to reading, says L’Homme.)

Many schools in the district have also begun Saturday reading academies or extended day programs that focus on literacy, says L’Homme. Others provide students with a second period of reading everyday, a practice known as double-dosing.

Retention in Chicago
Chicago also has found itself in the spotlight, especially after President Clinton praised the district’s decision to abolish social promotion in his State of the Union address last January. As part of a push toward greater accountability, the Chicago Public Schools requires students in grades three, six, eight and nine to attend a six- to seven-week summer school program if they cannot meet minimum scores on standardized tests. Generally, students who are retained are performing a year or two behind their peers.

At the end of summer school, students are tested again, and if their test scores have increased sufficiently, they move ahead to the next grade. If not, they repeat the grade but are provided with additional assistance. Elementary school children who are retained, for example, are required to attend an extended-day program that provides additional after-school instruction in reading comprehension, mathematics and problem-solving.

Older 8th graders who are held back (those who are 15 years old by December) attend one of nine transitional schools that offer a highly structured curriculum in reading and mathematics, small classes and the opportunity to start high school work before the end of the school year.

"Nothing we’re doing is radically different. We just used common sense, and we’ve concentrated things together," says Cozette Buckney, the district’s chief education officer.

Still, Chicago’s results are mixed. Of the 42,000 students who attended summer school in the summer of 1997, 44 percent of the 3rd graders, 57 percent of the 6th graders and 65 percent of the 8th graders did well enough to pass. The rest were held back. And of the 1,077 students who attended transitional school last year, only 370 made enough progress to begin high school work at midyear, according to district statistics.

Site-Based Solutions
One case in point is Atlantic High School in Port Orange, Fla. A new school, Atlantic committed itself to high standards from the outset. Before opening its doors, the school abolished dozens of low-level courses and increased graduation requirements, forcing students to complete more credit hours in core academic subjects.

It also received a waiver from the state department of education to do away with the D grade and require students to maintain a C average. And to push the bar still higher, the school decided to require a grade of 77 percent for a C.

"We figured we weren’t doing kids a favor saying that D was acceptable," says Chris Colwell, Atlantic’s principal of four years and the district’s new assistant superintendent of curriculum.

Realizing that some students would have trouble meeting such high standards, the school developed a comprehensive tutorial program. Homework tutorials are held daily at the school, and Saturday morning tutorials help students improve their SAT and ACT scores.

Students also can be assigned to so-called skills tutorials and unit tutorials. In the former, students work with teachers to improve specific skills, such as working with quadratic equations in algebra or using the ablative case in Latin. In the latter, students must attend tutorials for a minimum of 25 hours, during which they review key concepts in courses they may be having trouble in much as they would in summer school.

The sessions are held before and after school as well as on weekends. "We have some that start as early as 6 a.m.," says Colwell. And all sessions are staffed by teachers at the high school, who must devote 25 hours a year to tutorials.

That arrangement, made possible because of a memorandum of agreement with the local teachers union, gives Atlantic an extra 2,500 hours of instruction a year, according to Colwell. "It gives us the ability to loop back if a student doesn’t understand something the first time around," says Colwell. Teachers withhold the grades of students in these tutorials until they have completed their work.

Perhaps most important, students don’t attach any stigma to attending the tutorials, says Colwell, whose own daughter attends homework sessions in mathematics every day. "We have them in all subjects, from algebra to AP English, and it’s been that way since Day 1," he says. The school also issues progress reports every six weeks for students who aren’t earning C grades.

The school’s decision to adopt a trimester system and a block schedule is also key to its success, says language arts teacher Linda Eastlake. Under this arrangement, students have only three classes a day, and only two of those classes are core academic classes.

So far, Colwell says, the approach has paid off. Sixty percent of students who attend the labs because of failing grades finally earn a C or better, Colwell says. And among seniors, the graduation rate is 100 percent, while the school’s overall dropout rate dipped to 1 percent last year.

This year, as Florida begins requiring all its high schools to adopt requirements that students maintain a C average, schools like Atlantic are likely to attract even more attention.

What the Future Holds
Nor is that attention likely to diminish. Alexander, who now is studying the relationship between retention and the dropout rate, succinctly sums up the challenge facing schools.

"There’s no reason to think that retention is good," says Alexander. "But the alternative--moving a child ahead when he’s ill-prepared--that’s not good either. … You don’t want kids just limping along through the system."

As more school boards, legislatures and communities adopt that reasoning, the pressure on schools to find alternatives will only increase.

Donna Harrington-Lueker is a free-lance education writer based in Newport, R.I. E-mail: dhlueker@ids.net