"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Failure at An Early Age

Fourteen years ago Louisiana had the dubious distinction of being the first state in the Union to require elementary school students to pass a state test, the LEAP, to be promoted to the next grade.  Parents, teachers, and principals in high poverty neighborhoods all over Louisiana knew what was coming, and all the "Lean on Jesus" test prep rallies that could be staged by parents and churches did not alter the plague of failure among 4th and 8th graders who were retained until they could pass the test.  Test results predictably reflected family wealth and income, as all high stakes tests have for the past hundred years at least.

Over the past decade, some children in Louisiana have been held back three times before moving from 4th to 5th grade, and one supervisor told me in 2002 of being able to hear a fourth grader's heart beating from across her desk as she had to tell him he was one of those children who would be in 4th grade for a third time the following year.

Aside from the fear of losing a parent or going blind, the greatest fear children have is failing in school.  Children's hopes and fears, however, have been filtered out of the data used in the cruel calculus of race-and-class-based testing accountability measures.

With fourteen states now signed on to another generation of inhumane schooling practices, millions of elementary-aged children have their second greatest fear realized each year as a result of a single test given on a single day that will affect, from that day forward, self-efficacy, attitudes toward school, odds of dropping out, and the future likelihood of incarceration.

The most prominent part of the failed child's future that is not affected is test score improvement over time.  Even the most avid testing-for-retention proponents' "research" finds that any temporal rise in test scores immediately following retention disappears before previously-retained third graders reach high school.  With such results, can anyone justify this kind of racist, classist, expensive, and degrading policy that represents a moral failing of monumental proportions.

Here is a clip from a journal article that sums up the research on grade retention, via Susan Ohanian:
The practice of retaining students in a grade has been extensively studied over several decades and the preponderance of results show that retained students do worse academically than comparable students who are promoted. Retention has also been shown to have negative effects on personal adjustment, attitudes towards school and school drop out rates. (Dawson and Rafoth, 1998). A sample of the research findings on retention:
  • Some groups of students are more likely to be retained than others. Those at highest risk for retention tend to: be Black or Hispanic, have late birthdays (e.g., August, September, October), have developmental delays and/or attention problems, live in poverty, live in a single-parent household, have parents with low educational attainment, or have changed schools frequently (National Association of School Psychologists, 1998).
  • Early retentions are not better than later ones. There is no evidence of positive effects on school achievement or personal adjustment by such practices as delayed entry into school, kindergarten retention, or transitional classes.
  • Reading is the primary academic problem for which students are retained.
  • Initial achievement gains may occur during the first year of retention, but a consistent finding across many research studies is that such achievement gains decline within 2-3 years. Retained children either do no better or perform more poorly that similar groups of promoted children. This is true whether children are compared to same-age or same-grade students who were promoted. One of the reasons that teachers often underestimate the negative effects of retention is that these effects may not show up until the student is in another grade or school.
  • Children who are developmentally delayed are most likely to be harmed by retention. Particularly at the first grade level, large percentages of retained children are either subsequently retained again or are placed in special education.
  • Retention is associated with significant increases in behavior problems, with problems becoming more pronounced as children reach adolescence.
  • Students who are retained drop out of school at a much higher rate than promoted students even controlling for prior achievement, grades and attendance (Roderick, 1995). This finding is true whether the retention occurs early or late in their school career. For students who have been retained twice, the likelihood of dropping out increases by 90% (Task Force on Education of Young Adolescents, 1989).
  • A recent national longitudinal study shows that the use of high stakes 8th grade tests is associated with sharply higher drop-out rates, especially for students at schools serving mainly low SES students (Reardon, 1996).
  • Asked to rate stressful experiences, a group of students rated only blindness and death of a parent as more stressful than being retained in school (Byrnes and Yamamoto, 1984).
Some have argued that retention research has not looked at what has been called "retention with remediation." They correctly point out that a few studies have provided some support for retention. However, Holmes (1990) points out that these studies are similar in that they occurred in suburban settings, and included few, if any, disadvantaged students. Most retained students had average IQs and near-average reading skills. 
Retained students were not recycled through the standard curriculum but were placed in special classes with low teacher/pupil ratios and given considerable extra help. It should be noted that most of these successful retention studies did not provide remediation for the at-risk promoted children with whom they compared the retained children. In those that did, promoted at-risk children with extra help did better than retained children with extra help.

William Romey has pointed out that it's ironic that, "Retaining a child who hasn't passed a certain level at the end of June isn't really retention at all. It is moving the child clear back to the beginning of the year he or she has failed rather than working with the individual child at his or her actual achievement level." (Romey, 2000, p. 632). Romey suggests that children do not need to repeat an entire grade when they are missing part of the material-they just need to practice some of the material longer.

Despite the consistent research findings that retaining students does not improve long-term achievement and will actually increase the chances of dropping out of school, the SAS emphasizes retention as a way of helping students.


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