Wrestling with Retention

Long Beach Unified School District takes a new tact to enforce its K-8 promotion standards by KAREN E. DeVRIES AND CARL A. COHN

If you're a conscientious school administrator in America today, you probably cringe every time you pick up a newspaper or turn on the television to find some know-it-all politician talking about how "ending social promotion" is the answer to all of our problems in public schools today.

Your concerns might center on the preponderance of research suggesting that social promotion doesn't work or the common-sense knowledge that repeating the same work while expecting different results is far-fetched. Or perhaps you fear that holding back many students for a year will expose your school or school district to angry parents and critics, who believe that such efforts punish kids while holding adults blameless.

For the past two years, the leadership of the Long Beach, Calif., Unified School District has initiated a courageous conversation with parents, teachers, school administrators and community members about the difficult but necessary task of ensuring students are academically prepared to move from one level to the next. This conversation, which has been spearheaded by the district's three area superintendents, has resulted in key systemwide interventions designed to guarantee academic preparedness for all students in this large, diverse urban school system.

The first task force tackled the critical area of making sure we teach all kids to read in a timely manner. The second focused on what to do with youngsters who consistently fail middle school courses and then move on unprepared to high school. And the third examined the entire area of K-8 promotion standards and what additional checkpoints for student progress should be established. This article describes the work of the latter task force and how it went about arriving at a final set of K-8 promotion standards, which were adopted unanimously by the Long Beach board of education last winter.

Creating a Policy
In September 1997 a task force was assembled to determine the likely impact of implementing a retention policy on the capacity of the organization. This task force was chaired by one of the three K-8 area superintendents, who brought together a core group of administrators, central-office support staff, teachers and parents from previously established 3rd Grade and 8th Grade Initiative committees. Task force membership also was solicited widely from schools and surrounding communities. A dedicated group of nearly three dozen members met over a four-month period.

From the first meeting, task force discussions were lively. Although each meeting had an agenda with time devoted for open discussions, teachers and parents all wanted to share their deeply held beliefs about retention. By the third meeting, a rhythm was established: each meeting began with a discussion of one or two articles about research on retention and/or district data, followed by committee reports and ending with group consensus on key points, such as:
  • 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, non-retention grades to ensure that all children would have every opportunity to attain grade-level standards.

One area of lively discussion centered on the issue of kindergarten retention. This followed data showing that most student retentions came at the end of kindergarten and/or 1st grade. What did that mean? Is a half-day kindergarten program and one year of 1st grade sufficient to make such a major decision?

Our task force discovered we are better at collecting kindergarten data on social behaviors rather than academic progress. We needed to document growth of reading skills over time.

Consensus was reached when the task force decided to establish kindergarten as a key intervention checkpoint but not a retention grade. Pre-school and kindergarten content standards then would send a clear signal to parents and teachers that the kindergarten experience was critical for students to establish early literacy skills and reach grade-level proficiency by 3rd grade.

Plenty of Questions
As the task force worked toward a consensus on its social promotion recommendations to the school board, we addressed these questions:
  • Which grades will be used as the key checkpoints for retention?
  • What timeline is reasonable for implementing both retention and intervention policies? How much can school sites take on and perform effectively?
  • How will we systematically document our intervention efforts over time?
  • What criteria will be collected that will provide the best information for improving teaching decisions?
  • How will we train teachers to collect and use these data?
  • What accommodations will we make for students in special education and those learning English as a second language?
  • What will programs look like to ensure we don't repeat a grade?
  • How will we bring our parents along for early intervention and support?

In February the Long Beach school board approved as policy, "Promotion/Retention Standards for Students Grades K-8." (See www.lbusd.k12.ca.us/Research/html/index.html for a summary of the policy.)

Providing the Support
The implementation of this policy is where the real work begins. We started by compiling a "Promotion/Retention Standards K-8 Handbook for School Sites." The majority of our 72 principals of K-8 schools attended at least one meeting to share ideas for (1) implementing intervention programs for pre-K, grade two and grade six, (2) setting criteria for participating in the grade two and three summer school sessions, (3) devising program options for grade three retention candidates, and (4) reviewing draft assessments and criteria for retention at grade five. Principals held staff meetings to provide information and training to their staffs in the collection of data, assessments and interventions. Ongoing forums are being provided by area superintendents with parent interest groups, counselors, teachers and central-office support staff.

We developed a handbook for the school sites as a resource on the key implementation issues. The handbook covers board policy and administrative regulations; grade-level criteria for intervention and retention, assessment instruments for various grade levels and instructions on comprehensive data collection and documentation; program options, including special education considerations; and guidance for dealing with parents and the public.

Dealing with the Issues
Support for this policy has been overwhelmingly positive. Our school communities, staff members and parents are working together to ensure all children have what it takes to be successful students. They are ready to take a serious look at programs that make a difference.

The major challenge here is to make the most appropriate match of individual student needs with the right academic program. Our schools already offer several program alternatives:
  • 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.

Each school site will be responsible for developing programs to meet the needs of its student population. Those decisions about the use of scarce resources take time, yet we regularly ask our schools to do more. As we implement this policy, it has become clear that this is truly an accountability model. The collection of data and evaluation of programs based on data will highlight our challenges. However, resilient Long Beach administrators, teachers and central-office support staff can be counted on to continue to put children first.

Tough Sledding
The work we are doing in Long Beach bears no resemblance to the simplistic political sound bite of "ending social promotion," as if genuine academic intervention that rescues kids can be accomplished by an imperial wave of the hand. It cannot. This is the hardest, but most rewarding, work that we've done in decades.

Building a school system's capacity to intervene in ways that provide for ever better levels of academic preparation for all students is truly gratifying work. Whether or not the politicians recognize the difficulty and complexity of this work in an election year remains to be seen.

We're pleased with our progress and we hope our students' future academic success will be the real measure of this important legacy.

Karen DeVries is an area superintendent in the Long Beach Unified School District, 1399 E. 32nd St., Long Beach, Calif. 90807. E-mail: kdevries@lbusd.k12.ca.us. Carl Cohn is superintendent in Long Beach.