For over 40 years, study after study on grade retention has reached the same conclusion: Failing a student, particularly in the critical ninth grade year, is the single largest predictor of whether he or she will drop out of school (Edley, 2002). Widespread retention further exacerbates the achievement gap. In Massachusetts, for example, across all grades, African-American and Hispanics are retained at over three times the rate of whites (Edley, 2002).
According to research (Anderson, Jimerson and Whipple, 2002; NASP, 2003; Jimerson, Anderson and Whipple, 2002; Setencich, 1994), some of the devastating effects of retention are:
- Most children do not “catch up” when held back.
- Although some retained students do better at first, these children often fall behind again in later grades.
- Retention is one of the most powerful predictors of high school dropout; holding a child back twice makes dropping out of school 90% certain.
- In 2001, 6th grade students ranked grade retention as the most stressful life event, followed by losing a parent and going blind.
- Students who are held back tend to get into trouble, dislike school, and feel badly about themselves more often than children who go on to the next grade.
- The weakened self-esteem that usually accompanies retention plays a role in how well the child may cope in the future.
So What Can We Do?
A Three-Step Plan of Attack
1. Implement Response to Intervention
Early identification of student needs and application of evidence-based instructional strategies can prevent failure (Anderson, Whipple and Jimerson, 2002; U. S. Department of Education, 2002; Lyon and Fletcher, 2001; Lyon, 2002). Once student needs are identified, evidence-based intervention that is specific to each student’s needs should be conducted with intensity and fidelity, and the student’s response to the intervention should guide the next step in his/her instruction.
The purpose of Response to Intervention (RTI) is to catch struggling students early, provide appropriate instruction, and prevent the need to refer the child for special education. RTI offers hope that all students will receive better and more adequate instruction in math and reading.
The National Center on Response to Intervention (NCRTI) names four essential components of RTI:
- A school-wide, multi-level instructional and behavioral system for preventing school failure;
- Progress monitoring; and
- Data-based decision making for instruction, movement within the multi-level system, and disability identification (in accordance with state law) (NCRTI, 2010, p. 1).
The NCRTI defines RTI as follows:
“Response to intervention integrates assessment and intervention within a multi-level prevention system to maximize student achievement and to reduce behavior problems. With RTI, schools identify students at risk for poor learning outcomes, monitor student progress, provide evidence-based interventions and adjust the intensity and nature of those interventions depending on a student’s responsiveness, and identify students with learning disabilities or other disabilities” (NCRTI, 2010, p.2).
Teachers, however, are not equally effective at identifying student needs and applying instructional strategies that are the most appropriate for student needs. A study conducted by Sanders and Rivers (1996) examined the cumulative and residual effects of teachers on student achievement and found a wide chasm between the impact on student achievement by effective teachers and ineffective teachers. Equally performing second graders were separated by as many as 50 percentile points on standardized tests by the time they reached fifth grade solely as a result of being taught by teachers whose effectiveness varied greatly.
The study was based on Tennessee’s “value-added” testing system that maintained year-to-year test records on every student in the public school system and matched students to their teachers. Teachers were divided into three groups – low, average, and high – based on their students’ performance. There was a sharp difference in performance between students who had three teachers rated “low” and three teachers who were rated “high” during a three-year period. The study also found that African American students were about twice as likely to be assigned ineffective teachers.
2. Implement Intense Professional Learning
Standards set the course, and assessments provide the benchmarks, but it is highly effective teaching that makes substantial, sustained gains in student learning. Therefore, a primary focus should be to provide educators (principals, teachers and parents) with meaningful professional learning on evidence-based ways to effectively differentiate instruction for the diverse learners in our schools.
Professional learning should be customized to meet the specific needs of school and district educators. Disaggregated student and teacher data should be examined and then professional development should be built around student and teacher performance. It is critical to continuously evaluate progress and adjust accordingly.
Professional learning should include coaching and modeling in the classroom as well as customized, interactive learning sessions and study groups. The combination of both group and individual professional learning increases collective internal accountability within a school and district.
New knowledge, strategies and tactics can be introduced through interactive sessions, seminars and institutes. Continuous instructional improvement can be guided by observations with constructive feedback, coaching and mentoring, study groups and lesson modeling in classrooms. Summer institutes with follow-up sessions and on-site coaching make an ideal combination for deepening knowledge and ensuring that new skills are applied effectively.
3. Focus on Reading
The most notable academic deficit for retained students is in reading (NASP, 2003). Reading is a strong intervening factor in academic areas across the disciplines. Students who are unprepared in reading have a 15% chance of succeeding in math and a 1% chance of succeeding in science, while students who are good readers have a 67% chance of succeeding in math and a 32% chance in science (ACT, 2008).
ACT (2008). The forgotten middle: Ensuring that all students are on target for college and career readiness before high school. Iowa City, IA: Author
Anderson, G. E., Whipple, A. D., and Jimerson, S. R. (2002). Grade retention: Achievement and mental health outcomes. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists. www.nasponline.org/pdf/graderetention.pdf
Anderson, G. E., Jimerson, S. R. and Whipple, A. D. (2002). Children’s ratings of stressful experiences at home and school: Loss of a parent and grade retention as superlative stressors. Manuscript prepared for publication; available from authors at University of California, Santa Barbara.
Edley, C. and Wald, J. (2002). The grade retention fallacy. www.civilrightsproject.harvard.edu/research/articles/retention_edley.php
Jimerson, S. R. (2003). Grade retention in the United States. Communique, 31, 5. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
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Lyon, G. R. and Thomas, A. (2003). A conceptual framework for Louisiana’s reading implementation. Unpublished paper.
Lyon, G. R. (2002). Learning disabilities and early intervention strategies. Testimony to the Subcommittee on Education Reform, Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., June 6, 2002.
Lyon, G.R. and Fletcher, J. M. ( 2001). Early identification, prevention and early intervention for children at-risk for reading failure. Basic Education, 46, 3, 12-14.
National Association of School Psychologists Position Paper on Student Grade Retention and Social Promotion (2003). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists. www.nasponline.org/information/pospaper_graderetent.html
National Center on Response to Intervention (March 2010). Essential components of RTI – A closer look at Response to Intervention. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, National Center on Response to Intervention.
National Staff Development Council (2001). Standards for staff development, Revised. Oxford, OH: National Staff Development Council.
Sanders, W. L. and Rivers, J. C. (1996). Cumulative and residual effects of teachers on future student academic achievement. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center. www.ncela.gwu.edu/oela/summit/cd/files/sbr/sanders.pdf
Setencich, J. (1994). The impact of early grade retention on the academic achievement and self-esteem of seventh and eighth grade students. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the National Association of School Psychologists. Seattle, WA: ED 393 026.
Thomas, A. (2002). Louisiana Leadership and Literacy Initiative. Covington, LA: Center for Development and Learning.
Thomas, A. and Thorne, G. (2010). Differentiating instruction: 150+ targeted strategies for diverse learners. Metairie, LA: Center for Development and Learning.
Thomas, A. (2010). How minds work: The key to motivation, learning and thinking. www.cdl.org.