|FAILING TO EDUCATE?|
Clinton administration has proposed a ban on social promotion. Should
failing students be forced to repeat a grade?
Wyland of Lambertville, NJ, asks:
Alexander, Johns Hopkins, responds:
Dr. Shepard and I recently wrote point/counterpoint essays for the Scripps-Harris News Service that, in my reading of them, come to quite similar conclusions. These essays were published recently in several newspapers, but I was upset when I saw that mine had been edited down (I would guess that this was done to Dr. Shepard’s also)-- upset because important points had been deleted. In any event, that brief essay says pretty much what I want to say about the promotion/retention controversy, so here it is: “President Clinton’s call to end social promotion in his State of the Union address has made retention policy a front burner-issue. This is a healthy development in my view, but only if it encourages serious discussion of how best to meet the needs of children who are not achieving at acceptable levels. That requires getting beyond the stale “to retain or not” debate-- it’s too confining.
With colleagues Doris Entwisle and Susan Dauber, in 1994 I published a book on the effects of grade retention (“On the Success of Failure,” Cambridge University Press) that monitors the school progress of some 800 Baltimore children from first grade thorough middle school. More than 40% of the children we studied were held back during that time, many twice. Such numbers signal a problem of immense proportions, for the young people involved, who lose precious time, and for the schools, which must bear the cost of educating repeaters for an extra year or two. But what of the impact of retention, is it helpful, as intended, or harmful, as critics of the practice claim? We looked, carefully, at school performance (achievement test scores and marks) and attitudes (toward self and school) after children were held back in relation to the same criteria from before they were held back and in relation to promoted children’s school performance and attitudes over the same time frame (some of these comparisons spanned eight years). Contrary to the critics, retention was not positively harmful; more than that, it helped. Children held back in the early elementary years (our focus) made up ground academically and suffered no emotional scars. These youngsters-- who were far behind academically before being retained– did not catch up altogether, but they were better off than before. On that basis, we deemed retention a qualified success.
That conclusion seems to have cast us in the role of “friends of retention,” but that misreads our position. Retention “works” only in a narrow sense-- when the later situation of repeaters is compared against other poor performing students who were promoted (or, equivalently, against all promoted children, using statistical means to adjust for achievement differences that predate retention). This approach attempts to compare like against like. It is the frame of reference used in all evaluations of grade retention, and by this standard our evidence is sound. But if we believe that all children can, and should, realize success at school, then simply seeing repeaters keep up with other low achievers is small comfort.
At this point I part company with the critics. Many seem so preoccupied with the practice that they lose sight of why these children are candidates for retention in the first place. Most are far behind academically, and social promotion-- simply moving them ahead unprepared for what awaits them– won’t fix anything. The time bought by repeating a grade can help, but the decision to promote or not should be made case by case, based on firm understanding of a child’s difficulties and needs. For most poor performing children under most circumstances, this should be the option of last choice, not first choice. For them, we need a “third way,” one that shores up their skills before problems mount. Partial promotion, summer programs, ungraded classes, looping, cooperative learning, and supplemental services (e.g, tutoring) are promising avenues, but social promotion has no place on the list.
I applaud President Clinton’s call for an end to social promotion if it is a mandate to find this “third way.” My fear is that many instead will take it simply as license to hold back more children."
Shepard, University of Colorado, responds:
In his book, On the Success of Failure, Professor Alexander discounts the findings from Holmes's review of 63 matched-control studies on several grounds, especially he argues that match-control studies are never as good as randomization in accounting for initial differences between groups. While I agree with this basic scientific principle, it is possible to evaluate the degree of control and possible sources of error across a whole body of work, just as has been done with the non-randomized studies showing the relationship between cancer and lung cancer. When Holmes examined the degree of control, the better controlled studies showed more serious negative effects from retention.
Professor Alexander also points to the fact that negative findings don't outweigh positive findings by quite as much in recent studies as they did in past decades, though negative findings are still in the majority. Again, I agree in principle to his preference for relying on more recent studies. However, according to Holmes's review the small number of recent studies that show positive effects are highly unusual both in the characteristics of students retained and in the special help provided. All of the nine positive studies were conducted in suburban settings with few minority students. Although retained students in these studies were reading below grade level, they were scoring at the national average in mathematics and language arts. In addition these students were not simply recycled through the regular curriculum but were placed in special classes with low student-teacher ratios. Thus, I find it hard to generalize these findings to more typical settings where grade retention is being used, and I am inclined to attribute the positive outcomes from these studies to the special interventions rather than to retention. In the one study that I know of where retention-with-special-help was compared to promotion-with-special-help, low achieving students benefited more from promotion-with-special help.
I also disagree with Professor Alexander regarding the findings from his study in Baltimore. My colleagues Mary Lee Smith, Scott Marion, and I published a review of On the Success of Failure and a rejoinder to Alexander's reply in Psychology in the Schools (1996(3); 1998(4)). Some of our criticisms and reanalyses were quite technical, but a simplified summary is as follows. The largest sample of retainees in Alexander's study was 104 first-grade retainees. Alexander et al. acknowledged that the effect of retention on first graders was quite negative. "Not only did they trail badly, but they do so by more after being held back then they had before" (p. 120). For the sample of 62 fourth-seventh grade retained students, according to Alexander et al., "it is hard to say that retention either helps or harms children held back at higher grade levels: they seem to be doing satisfactorily all along, before, during, and after retention" (pp. 81-82). The best claim to benefits from retention is with the samples of 59 second-grade retainees and 37 third-grade retainees, where Alexander says that retention "stops academic free fall." However, his own statistical analyses show that these students benefited only in the repeat year itself and after that they were back at roughly the same percentile level (with their new grade mates) as they were when they first started the repeated grade. Given these results, we don't see how Alexander and his co-authors could report "a preponderance of positive effects" from retention.