Thriving School Psych Thriving Students

March Madness Comes Early This Year

Ha Ha! All you basketball sports fans who googled “March Madness” got to my blog about how grade retention and social promotion decisions have come early this year in my school. Fooled you! Sorry, I get my entertainment where I can.

Every March, I get a slew of new referrals for testing students for learning disabilities, ADHD, and other disabilities, as the sheer panic of “What is going to happen to this student in X+1 grade???” (Where X is the child’s current grade, plus one. See? Algebra is useful after all.) I hear parents and teachers wonder out loud how the kid who is not meeting grade standards is going to make it next year. I hear murmurs in the teacher’s lounge about retention. And I cringe.

I don’t mind the referrals for testing.* As a parent or teacher, I would want to know if the student had a learning disability before I made a big decision about retention or promotion. No, I don’t cringe because of the 8 hojillion referrals I will be getting. I cringe because Over 100 years of research does not support retention as an effective intervention for kids who are not learning, missed a lot of school, or are socially immature. That’s right, I said it, and I italicized it too. The research does not support retention.

Before you write me with your anecdotal evidence saying it worked for so-and-so, I have to prefend (pre-defend? New word?) my position on the matter. Ironically, I will also cite my own anecdotal evidence. I’m above the law. But I will also cite the National Association of School Psychologist’s position statement on the resarch as my source as well.**

1) Social promotion without any other intervention is not effective either. I never subscribe to the “Let’s do the same thing that didn’t work twice!” model. The research shows that “promotion plus” (i.e. Combining grade promotion and effective evidence-based interventions) is more likely than retention to benefit children with low achievement or behavior problems.

2) Initial academic improvements may occur during the year the student is retained. There is celebration and validation of the retention. We made the right decision! However, many research studies show that achievement gains decline within 2-3 years of retention. This means that kids who are retained do not end up doing better than similar children who were not retained, but were experiencing similar academic problems.

3) In adolescence, retained students are more likely to experience behavioral and self-esteem problems, and are 5-10 times more likely to drop out of school. I get to see the long-term effects of retention, and it is not pretty. Retention is one of the most powerful predictors of high school drop out. Plus, anecdotally, I am working with a student who is in 8th grade and is ALMOST 16 YEARS OLD. He was retained twice and now can almost drive himself to middle school. Seriously. It’s not right. He is not doing well.

4) A study of 6th graders’ perceptions indicated that they consider retention as one of the most stressful life events. I have consoled many a crying student on the first day of school when they are told they are still in the same grade as last year. It’s devastating.

5) Retention may help students who have missed many days of school, but only if their attendance improves and if the child will not be considerably older than the other students.

The take home message is: At this time, however, there are no specific indicators that predict which children could benefit from retention. So yes, maybe a few kids here and there could benefit, but by and large, we don’t know which ones, and the research is pretty clear that overall, retention doesn’t work and it may be harmful in the long run.

Not convinced yet? Throw some counter research my way. I’ll read it. It might be in June, because I’m in the middle of a Testival (festival of testing) right now. But I will read it.

I should also note that I am equally adamant about not retaining students with IEPs (students with disabilities). Why? Because the whole reason they are behind grade level is because of their disability, and there is a 8 hojillion page plan on how to support them in the next grade. Special educators help the kid access whatever grade level curriculum they are doing in the general education environment anyway. If the student is making progress toward their IEP goals, then I don’t think they should be retained. Plus, did I mention one hundred years of research doesn’t support it? I think I did…

I’m a bit feisty tonight, as you may be able to tell. I just want parents and educators to have the research in their minds as they come to March Madness decisions. I get it. I am in the same meetings you are in, where you just can’t imagine how a kid is going to make it in X+1 grade. Especially for the students with really poor attendance. It’s really hard to come up with a promotion plus plan, I know. But that’s what our job as school psychologists is–to inform, educate, and roll up our sleeves to help figure out what to do for these struggling students.

*Okay, I mind a little bit, only because they all come at once. But I’ve finally just accepted the cyclical nature of these things.
**Grade Retention and Promotion: Information for Parents. By Shane Jimerson, Ph.D., Sarah M. Woehr, & Amber M. Kaufman, M.A. University of California, Santa Barbara. Available on the NASP Website.

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Comments on March Madness Comes Early This Year

  1. Steffie17 says:

    This is running through the heads of teachers in my school right now. We try the, "how will it be different if X stays in the same grade? What will change if they repeat? How will they benefit?" I hate the idea of retention. Last year, I was the sole person against retaining a student based on her attendance. The student wanted to stay in 6th grade, and it happened.

    I just think of the presentation I attended at NASP a few years back that said, they interviewed incarcerated adults, who had to reflect on the most stressful time in their life, or the one thing they regret the most, and many of them said, staying back in school!

  2. I'm not so sure about the use of "hojillion" within the context of this post. I think "umptysquat" might be a better representation of the amount of testing. 🙂

    I think it's interesting that many high schools have policies about the number of credits required to achieve the next class standing. It's a passive-aggressive approach to grade retention. A lot of those kids do drop out because they don't want their picture in the sophomore section of the yearbook twice. Seems like schools could spend some of that energy directed on punishing kids who aren't learning into efforts that help them achieve.

  3. Mimi says:

    So many comments…

    1. Heart the use of March Madness as a search engine "fooled you!"
    2. "Testival" is my new favorite word and I hope you'll let me use it in a future post – with credit given to you of course.
    3. I agree with you. The debate to hold over a child was SO PAINFUL for me as a teacher. I think the hardest part was knowing that I would be passing them on, yet any attempt at an intervention/support plan would be dismissed/ignored/not followed through and I worried about the child's feelings of failure if they began to drown in the next grade. But then, if you hold them, there's a whole bunch of failure related feelings there too. If we could just all get on the same page, do what is best for children and let teachers do their jobs….oh if we could just do that.

  4. Beth says:

    I'm a school psychologist and I too am often the only voice at the table talking about the detrimental effects of retention, or at the very least the lack of evidence of a positive effect.

    This is my first year as a "real" psych, so I'm not too far out of grad school. I did a big project on retention while still in my grad program. I cited much of the research that you presented here. One additional article I read, however, has always stuck with me. It was looking at retention from a business/economics/sociological perspective. It described the impacts of adding an additional year of school to a child's experience as including taking one year of earning potential from them. It went on to describe the life-long financial impact of always being one year behind where the student could have been on payscales. I'm not representing the ideas as well as I would like, but it was a fascinating read. If I can find it again I'll cite it here later.

  5. EABeam says:

    "Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."
    A. Einstein.

  6. Adam says:

    I stumbled upon an interesting article about retention a few months ago. Apparently some Illinois high schools, predominantly ones located in Chicago, were using retention as a loophole to keep underachieving students from taking the Junior year standardized tests. Here is a brief description of what was going on.

    "School districts statewide are using a loophole that allows them to define what constitutes a “junior.” By ratcheting up the credit hour requirements, schools are disqualifying thousands of third-year high school students from taking the 11th-grade exam that is the primary tool to hold the schools accountable for student achievement.

    Many then take the test as seniors, but their scores are not used for state and federal No Child Left Behind accountability purposes. In fact, the state does not even track how well seniors perform on the test.

    School officials say that giving students more time in class better prepares them for the exam.

    Still, a Tribune analysis found that 20 percent of Illinois sophomores didn’t officially advance to junior-level status last year and, therefore, never took the exam.

    So at least 34,000 students – about 20 percent of the original Illinois sophomore class – either dropped out, transferred out of state or, most likely, simply were not counted as juniors.

    In many cases, the missing students then reappear on state enrollment data as seniors come to their fourth year, according to state data. So, in effect, they were never classified as juniors on state enrollment data.

    I realize this is quite a bit different than retention in elementary or middle school, but I was just wondering what your thoughts were on this.

    (Here is a link to the full article. Unfortunately, in order to view it, they force you to register on the Chicago Tribune website.)

  7. mpettit says:

    Yes, yes, yes! My favorite tidbit to share at such meetings is, "well, if it takes Johnny 2 years to learn the content at every grade level, he'll be 30 when he graduates from HS…" If he didn't learn it this year, he's not going to learn it next year! We have to do something different with instruction/curriculum! I've just starting telling parents that retention is one of the most researched things in education, and while it may look like it worked next year, and maybe the next, chances are that in the long run it won't help and will likely cause harm. The real problem is our assembly line education system, but I haven't figured out how to fix that one yet!

  8. halpey1 says:

    This is a great article (as usual). 🙂 I wonder what you think about retention, specifically in kindergarten. I ask because at my school, it seems the thinking is, retention is bad, except for in kindergarten. For some reason, it seems acceptable in kindergarten. I'm on the fence… what do you think?

  9. Anonymous says:

    Thank you thank you thank you! This is what I have been saying to my son's school. They toyed with the idea of retention in 2nd grade because they feel he is immature. He can read at a 3rd grade level, he gets 85-100% on all of his Math assessments. He is extraordinarily interested in Science and always does well in it (although they don't do many formal assessments in Science and SS) but the teacher feels he is immature so lets keep him in 2nd grade for another year. Um…I don't think so. Your post just confirmed that there ARE some people in education who get it and who aren't just sheep sliding down a slippery mountain. Bravo for having your own convictions and for always looking at what the best interest of the CHILD is! Standing ovation!

  10. Nicole says:

    I am a teacher who has never retained a student, though have definitely thought about it. I definitely see why some teachers push for it in K/1. I think it is INSANE that the cutoff date in California is Dec 1st (when I was growing up, it was Sept 1st). In a state that has some of the most rigorous and ridiculous testing, you have kids who don't turn five until December in Kindergarten- they can barely stay awake the whole day! That's not to say that every younger child has trouble in school, but more often than not in the last five years I've been teaching, when a student was seriously behind and not developmentally ready to handle the demands of the grade level, I find that they are very young for their grade level. I understand that for some parents, one more year of child care or preschool is not an option, but as much as possible, I would encourage parents to visit a full day kindergarten and really ask yourself if you think your child will be up for it.

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