Grade retention, better known as "staying back", "being held back" or "repeating", has been the topic of much debate within the educational system. The controversy which surrounds this long-standing issue has been reinforced by such topics as the recent endorsement of academic standards. Research indicates that "the rate of retention has increased by approximately 40% in the last 20 years with as many as 15% of all American students held back each year and 30-50% held back at least once before ninth grade" (Dawson, 1998). These discouraging statistics pose copious problems within a school system. The difficulties can be appreciated at the organizational level, as well as inside the classroom and, most troubling, within the individual students. The consequences, both positive and negative, reverberate throughout the school system.
Grades retention is an issue which requires a prodigious amount of examination and should be considered carefully and thoroughly. Formally, grade retention is defined as the practice of requiring a student who has been in a given grade level for a full school year to return at that level for a subsequent year (Jackson, 1975). Unofficially, the practice is employed as a tool to enhance the academic or developmental growth for students who are unable to meet the curriculum requirements due to a variety of reasons. These reasons can include decreased cognitive functioning, physical immaturity, social-emotional difficulties and failure to pass standardized assessments. A child may be considered for retention if he has poor academic skills, is small in stature, is the youngest in the class, has moved frequently, has been absent repeatedly, does poorly on prescreening assessments or has limited English-language skills (Robertson, 1997). Additionally, the typical profile of a retained child is more likely to reveal an elementary school-aged student who is a black or Hispanic male with a late birthday, developmental delay, attentional problems, low socioeconomic status, single-parent household with a parent who either does not or cannot intervene on behalf of the child (Robertson, 1997; Mattison, 2000).
Also seen in retained children are the predictive health factors of hearing and speech impairments, low birth weight, enuresis and exposure to cigarette smoke within the home (Byrd & Weitzman, 1994). Statistics depict a bleak picture of grade retention. Annually, it is estimated that roughly 15% of students are retained, representing approximately 2. 4 million children (Jimerson, 2001; Mattison, 2000).
In general, children who repeat a grade are 30% more likely to drop out of school as compared to their promoted peers and the retention trend is increasing, up approximately 12% from 1980 to 1992 (Owings & Magliaro, 1998). Retained students have an approximately 60% chance of dropping out of school by the 12 th grade and those students who have been retained twice increase their chance to 90% (Parker, 2001). Rum berger (1995) identified grade retention as the single most powerful predictor of dropping out. It is estimated that 40% of the total number of repeaters are from the lowest SES brackets compared to only 8. 5% from the highest SES groups (Owings & Magliaro, 1998). Research by Meisels (1993) discovered that more than two-thirds of all retentions occur before fourth grade.
These discouraging statistics also come at an enormous expense; grade retention costs approximately 10 billion dollars per year (Natale, 1991). To counteract the discouraging data about grade retention, many school systems have instilled the policy of social promotion. The recent negativism surrounding the tradition of repeating a grade portends a return to social promotion. Social promotion, the antithesis of grade retention, is the automatic passing of a student on to the next grade at the end of the school year, despite his or her academic standing. It is widely acknowledged that socially promoted students have failed to meet performance standards or academic requirements which are required to pass into the next grade. The idea behind social promotion is the presumed interest of the student's psychological and social well-being, disregarding their achievement.
Neither grade retention nor social promotion has been proven to benefit academically or developmentally challenged students. Historically, grade retention was conceived as a tool to improve academic skills by allowing extra time for students to develop adequate scholastic skills (Reynolds, 1992). It was not until the later half of the nineteenth century that promotion depended upon mastery of educational content (Owings & Magliaro, 1998). The synthesis of the early research (1924 - 1948) demonstrated that retention did not have an impact on the disparity of student achievement levels and had no significant effect on instructional gains (Owings & Magliaro, 1998). Around 1950, researchers turned to the relationship between retention and dropouts. This investigation came at a time when the literature stressed the importance of keeping students in school (Owings & Magliaro, 1998).
The next wave of research came in the 1960's and 1970's when the educational community began to endorse the practice of social promotion. Jackson (1975) concluded that there was no evidence indicating that grade retention was more beneficial than promotion. In 1984, researchers Holmes and Matthews concluded that retained students had lower academic achievement, poorer personal adjustment, lower self-concept and held school in less favor than promoted students. In 1989, Holmes preformed a meta-analysis of retention studies conducted between 1925 and 1989. Out of the 63 studies used, 54 demonstrated negative effects associated with staying back, including social-emotional maladjustment and academic underachievement (Holmes, 1989). Throughout the history of retention, there has been a lack of empirical evidence supporting the practice (Owings & Magliaro, 1998).
This leads to the current research on the topic of retention. According to Leanarduzzi (1990), there were 66 articles written on retention between 1990 -1997, only one supported the practice. The long-held, erroneous belief that repeating a grade is best practice for students is currently being refuted and challenged in the literature. The minor benefits that some studies have postulated have only been short-term, vanishing within two to three years (Owings & Magliaro, 1998). Jimerson (2001) found that 80% of the studies published between the years of 1990 - 1999 did not report favorable conclusions regarding retention. Owings & Magliaro (1998) suggest that the research surrounding retention indicates negative social implications.
Negative attitudes toward education, increased behavior problems and disengagement from school are consequences of grade retention. There is strong social stigma to being held back and it may have devastating effects on the student. Researchers have attributed a portion of the increase in the dropout rate to the reports of decreased self-esteem in retained children (Natale, 1991). Students perceived flunking a grade as only slightly less traumatic than the death of a parent or going blind (Natale, 1991). These disturbing descriptors illuminate the emotional repercussions of grade retention.
Although most of the research regarding grade retention is discouraging, there have been reports of modest benefits associated with repeating a grade. Children perceived as having positive self-concepts, satisfactory peer relationships and adequate skills to compensate are less likely to experience the negative outcomes associated with retention (NASP, 1998). Retention can also assist those children who are failing due to lack of opportunity for instruction, rather than the lack of ability (NASP, 1998). Conflicting research has found positive outcomes including increased performance rates and lower dropout rates in elementary and high school students (Baen an & Hopkins, 1989; Schuyler, 1985). Retention, in all cases, is most likely to have a positive impact on students who receive specific remediation strategies which address skill and behavioral deficits (NASP, 1998). For those students who perform within one standard deviation of the mean on achievement tests and do not have serious social, emotional or behavioral deficits, retention might be a beneficial modification.
Despite the popular belief that repeating a grade is an effective strategy for failing students to master the basic skills, the overwhelming majority of research conducted on grade retention is predominately negative. There are numerous myths which surround the practice of retention. It is commonly believed that fewer students repeat a grade today, when in fact approximately 2 children in every 30 children in a classroom are held back annually. Society believes that retention improves student achievement, but overall negative academic effects of staying back were seen in 54 recent studies. There is a significant relationship between dropping out and staying back, although many educators believe that non-promotion prevents dropouts. Regardless of the myriad of past and present research delineating the detrimental effects of grade retention, is still commonly assumed the outcomes are advantageous.
When considering grade retention parents and educators must consider several issues. The subject areas of most difficulty should be taken into account, as well as the behavioral concerns of the student. Other things to think about include the measures teachers have taken to develop the specific skills necessary for promotion and the practices which were of greatest benefit. It is necessary to consider if another year of the same instruction would be valuable, while asking what performance standards should be achieved for the subsequent year.
The child's feelings about retention should be taken under advisement to protect for decreased self-esteem and motivational levels. Also important are the student's friendships and peer relationships and how they will be affected by the retention. According to Medway and Rose (1984) there are four variables which appear to be the most influential in determining whether retention will prove to be helpful to the child. First, the child who will benefit from retention is one whose intelligence in less than one standard deviation below the mean and the student should have made some academic progress during the last year.
The third determining factor revolves around the levels of the child's emotional adjustment, social skills, self-concept and maturity. Lastly, the caregivers must accept the decision and work with the school in an effort to help the child. Variables such chronological age, social-emotional development, intellectual abilities, attendance patterns, family background and parental attitudes should be closely examined when considering retention. Many teachers, parents and administrators have searched for satisfactory interventions to put an end to the use of retention. Suggestions have ranged from smaller classes to parent training to the evaluation of the current curriculum (Natale, 1991). One general proposal which is widely accepted is that more individual attention must be directed at students.
This may be achieved through a variety of ways including individualized instruction, where the curriculum is tailored to the individual students' learning styles, or tutoring - attention is given to the academic areas of difficulty throughout the year. Smaller class size, particularly in the primary grades, affords the opportunity for improvements in the learning environment (Robertson, 1997). Focus has been also brought upon the training and development of teachers to enhance skills. Retention places students in the same grade, usually with the same teacher, using the same skills. This "recycling" effect neglects to focus on the educational problems and fails to tailor to remediation (Mattison, 2000). Teaching must be developmentally, cognitively and culturally responsive to enable greater success on the part of the student.
Studies have found that teacher expertise is the most significant detriment to student performance and low-income, minority and special needs students are the least likely populations to receive well-qualified, highly effective teachers (Darling-Hammond, 1998). Skillful teachers who are knowledgeable in a variety of teaching strategies are a frontline defense to grade retention (Darling-Hammond, 1998). Preventative programs to reduce the amount of remediation include interventions that are both child and organizationally centered. Organizational interventions provide more intensive educational programs that focus on essential content. Included are student supports during the school day, effective early reading programs, tutoring, extended school years, summer programs and homework clubs (Parker, 2001). The first strategy to diminish the risk of retention is a quality preschool program.
Preschool should be a part of the comprehensive approach to early intervention but cannot be expected to solve all the problems of at-risk children. Research on full day kindergarten has found positive effects on reading readiness and language (Slavin, Karweit, & Wasik, 1993). Developmentally immature kindergarten ers should have the opportunity to participate in a two-year "junior kindergarten" sequence before entering first grade (Slavin, Karweit, & Wasik, 1993). Structured, empirically supported programs have demonstrated the longest-lasting effects on young children.
Most of these preventative programs center on tutoring models in regards to reading skills. The first of these programs, Reading Recovery, is a highly structured model of language proficiency. The program requires a year of teacher training and emphasizes the direct teaching of meta cognitive strategies, modeling, phonics and the integration of reading and writing. Follow-up data is indicative of strong positive effects and these benefits are reportedly maintained for two years (Slavin, Karweit, & Wasik, 1993). Another widely recognized intervention is Success for All (Slavin, Karweit, & Wasik, 1993). It was designed to provide children with whatever resources they needed for success throughout their elementary school years (Slavin, Karweit, & Wasik, 1993).
The emphasis in this program is placed upon prevention and early intervention. The prevention component is comprised of high-quality preschool, full-day kindergarten, research-based curriculum and instructional methods, reduced class size, non-graded organization in reading, activities which foster positive relationships and involvement with parents (Slavin, Karweit, & Wasik, 1993). Included in the early intervention piece is tutoring from certified teachers and family support programs to help with behavioral concerns; truancy; health problems or social-emotional challenges (Slavin, Karweit, & Wasik, 1993). Success for All attempts to amalgamate the most effective academic strategies into one comprehensive program in order to combat retention and failure. Alternatives to non-promotion have become a viable option for educators, parents and students.
One practice includes multi-aged student grouping. This refers to a form of school organization in which students are flexibly grouped together according to ability level in a single classroom for the purpose of providing effective instruction (Rudolf, 1999). In this environment, students proceed through a hierarchy of skills at their own pace and advance to the next stage when mastery of the required skills is achieved (Robertson, 1997: Slavin, Karweit, & Wasik, 1993). This occurs without the restriction of grade level labeling (Robertson, 1997). For this to happen, teachers need to be trained to educate a variety of students at different ages and abilities. Another method, referred to as multi-year student assignment or looping, involves a single graded class of children staying with a teacher for two or more years or grade levels.
Research has demonstrated that students experience greater success in school which is structured to create close, sustained relationships between students and teachers (Darling-Hammond, 1998). The "looping" effect allows the students to benefit from consistency and relationship building with the teachers. The work inside the classroom is less fragmented and teachers have more time for instruction in multi-grade environments. These types of modifications reflect the forward trend of reducing the rate of non-promotion by affording at-risk students the opportunity to excel. Parents providing the necessary assistance and involvement in their child's education may also help decrease retention rates. In childhood, parents are an influential and supportive factor in their life.
Parental involvement in education may attempt to increase a student's effort in schoolwork. This intervention may also keep parents informed of any potential problems their child may be having in school. Effective parental involvement in education promotes advocating for crucial services including special education services, tutoring and extra instruction. Using these interventions discussed will ensure the increase of academic achievement for students who are performing poorly in school.
Since the beginning of the 20 th century, research has demonstrated that grade retention provides no academic or social advantage to students (Owings & Magliaro, 1998). Yet the practice is garnering attention as school face increasing pressure to establish accountability for student achievement (Owings & Magliaro, 1998). Grade retention gives the appearance of accountability and enforcing the standards, but often neglects the underlying cause of a child's failure (Robertson, 1997). Remediation has been shown to harm an already at-risk population, but continues to be applied in school systems. It is essential to reflect on all aspects of a child's functioning when considering retention. This includes academics standing as well as, overall cognitive functioning, social emotional development, parental support, health concerns and general maturity.
The alternatives to grade retention are innovative and valuable tools to combat the negative outcomes of staying back. The programs can be introduced at the individual or organizational levels. Prospectively, the state of our students hinges upon the implementation of viable substitutes to grade retention, in an effort to curb the drop-out rate and increase academic mastery. The previous research highlights the inadequacies in the practice of non-promotion and stimulates educators, administrators and parents to release their long-held notions of the benefits of grade retention and adopt contemporary options for the education of their children. Meisels, Samuel J. , &Liaw, Fong-Ruby.
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