Retaining or RESTRAINing?
Why are students continuously held back when research proves it’s harmful to children?
Think of a small six-year-old being told they have to leave their friends behind and complete first grade, again. As naïve as children are perceived, there is more going on in their minds than most presume. Their friends are asking why they aren’t moving on to second grade, their family is saying they aren’t ready, and this leads to the child already feeling puzzled in their first year of school.
WHAT IS RETENTION
Students have been retained, or held back, to ensure they are completely prepared for the following grade. Retaining students gives teachers the easy way out instead of building a system that will actually benefit their students. For a child to be retained, they take a standardized test that determines whether or not they are ready for the next grade. These policies were instituted in the 1980s and forced students to take these yearly tests. It wasn’t until the past 10 years or so that people started to realize how harmful it was to students.
“Children fear grade retention so much that they cite it No. 3 on their list of anxieties following only the fear of blindness and death of a parent”
Problems with Retention
When reading “Alternatives to Grade Retention” from the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) site, one finds a study done of children’s anxieties ranked from 1 to 10 (1 being the worst fear). It was found that “Children fear grade retention so much that they cite it No. 3 on their list of anxieties following only the fear of blindness and death of a parent”. A child shouldn’t have to go through that stress at such a young age when being retained is completely preventable, unlike going blind or a parent passing.
Retaining students sets them up to fail. Considering the studies that have repeatedly proven that it prevents students from succeeding, most would think there would be a change in the dependence on retention.
This data from the 2008–09 school year shows that students are more likely to be held back during 1st and 2nd grade. This comes from the idea most people believe, the younger the better. But, sociologist Megan Andrews proves that the major effects are not only when they are young, but kindergarten through fifth grade have the worst results.
“Kids who repeat a year between kindergarten and fifth grade are 60 percent less likely to graduate high school than kids with similar backgrounds, and even 60 percent less likely to graduate high school than siblings in the same family”
Andrews examined about 37000 children from two surveys (NLSY 1979 and NELS 1988) and found that 10% were held back during school in the 1980s. All of these students had similar backgrounds, meaning that all of the parents attained the exact same level of education, and all of the families had the same level of household income. When Andrew matched the students who had similar behavioral problems, she then looked to see if the students graduated from high school. This is where she discovered that “kids who repeat a year between kindergarten and fifth grade are 60 percent less likely to graduate high school than kids with similar backgrounds, and even 60 percent less likely to graduate high school than siblings in the same family”.
Taking a child from their friends, making them the oldest and largest student in the next year contributes to them having social problems and not wanting to attend school. As noticed by a report done by Child Trends Data Bank, “studies have found that children who had repeated a grade, in comparison to matched non-retained students, showed poorer social adjustment, more negative attitudes towards school, more problem behaviors, lower achievement…” and the never ending list of things that hinder their success.
Why Retention Doesn’t Work
If a child struggled in 1st grade and no changes are made, what stops them from struggling again?! The same teachers, the same curriculum, the same work. It seems clear that if nothing changes in the school, nothing will change for the child. As the AASA explains, “Little is done to ensure that the experience will be either more appropriate for the individual needs of the child or of higher quality”.
Why do policy makers feel that the first response to struggling students is retention, instead of seeking improvements in the teaching practices?
The Flip Side
There are also some people who argue that retaining students is practical and simple. They claim that “it provides students who are truly behind developmentally a chance to catch up” like writer Derrick Meador does in an About Education article. Every student falls behind, struggles, or needs help at some point so claiming that only some need to catch up, is simply ludicrous. It’s up to not only the parents and students to help the student get to their grade level expectations, but the teachers must contribute to the child catching up.
“When a strategy fails to work, the solution is not to do it again; it is to change the strategy” -Deborah Stipek
For a successfully structured education system, teachers need to know a wide range of teaching strategies, services for those struggling, and assessments to focus on how students best learn.
Specifically, as the AASA states, “Teaching that is developmentally, cognitively and culturally responsive enables a greater range of students to succeed”. This implies that teachers must be up to date on the expectation of today’s teaching of different subjects to different students. Every student is different and each student has certain teaching strategies that they prefer or learn better with.
Also, there is a need for assessments that help students show what type of help they need. The assessments should “give detailed information about students’ approaches to learning as well as about their levels of performance can determine how students can be helped most successfully”.
Finally, school administration needs to place a special focus on services that give students the extra time and attention they may need. An example of this is one from the National Association of Elementary School Principals that gives “‘double dose’ periods for reading or math” for those students that are falling behind.
Students have been abandoned into the world of feeling inferior to everyone else, not having the help they need, and ultimately being predisposed to a life of setbacks when retained. I leave you with the most powerful quote to combat retention, “When a strategy fails to work, the solution is not to do it again; it is to change the strategy”.