Grade retention

When Texas governor George W Bush was running for president, we heard a lot

about "compassionate conservatism," but rather less about what it

actually meant. The one thing which did emerge from his handlers’ interference,

however, was that Bush was particularly committed to, and interested in, education

policy. It was something he’d spent a lot of time on in Texas, and was also

an area where open-minded liberals could be disappointed with the Democrats,

who were generally more interested in doing whatever the teachers’ unions told

them to do (ie, nothing) than they were in coming up with innovative solutions

to very difficult problems.

But as we all know, Texas governors are very weak in terms of what they’re

actually able to achieve. And the Bush administration has quite deliberately

sidelined any issues except for wars and taxes, so it’s hard to tell what the

present education policy is. All the same, there is one Bush education policy

which has just come into force: Florida’s. The governor of Florida has a lot

more power than the governor of Texas, and the present incumbent, who happens

to be George W Bush’s younger brother Jeb, has pushed through a major new reform.

It’s a complete and utter disaster.

If you only read one article about education policy this year, it has to be

Michael

Winerip’s magisterial column from May 21 in the New York Times. I know I’m

coming to this a bit late: I plead deadline pressures and then a wedding I had

to go to in Germany. But really, it’s not time-sensitive (unless or until the

Times blocks access to it, of course). It’s one of those columns which starts

off with a human-interest hook but then gets deep into the real facts, and it

more or less singlehandedly demolishes Florida Republicans’ claims that their

latest policy is a good idea.

The policy is simple. Every third-grader in Florida has to take a reading test

at the end of the year. If the kid doesn’t pass, he or she is held back, and

takes third grade all over again. This year – the first year of the new

scheme – a stunning 23% of third-graders failed the test. That’s 43,000

children stigmatised in the service of a policy which almost everybody agrees

doesn’t work.

As a letter

to the New York Times today attests, holding children back can damage them

for life. And the evidence is far from simply anecdotal. As Winerip writes:

Hundreds of studies in the last two decades have concluded that holding children

back has no long-term academic benefit, that within two years retained students

once again lag behind classmates, and that retained students are more likely

to drop out of high school.

Florida’s own Department of Education issued a report in the early 1990′s

warning against retention: "Research on the subject is clear. Grade level

retention does not work. Further, it would be difficult to find another educational

practice on which the research findings are so unequivocally negative."

But the policy was pushed through by Republicans who dismiss scientific research

as "gobbledegook," presumably on similar grounds as those used for

denying global warming and/or evolution.

What’s more, children who have been held back in the past at least were held

back because of exceptional circumstances. It might not have worked for them,

but at least the teachers in the school felt that those kids had failed to understand

what they were meant to have learned in that grade, and needed to be taught

it again. That’s not the case in Florida: children with A grades in spelling

or mathematics still get held back if they fail the reading test for whatever

reason, including simply nerves on the day. And it’s not a handful: the new

third-grade class size will now be 23% bigger, thanks to this policy.

Holding a child back is a harsh punishment, especially when the kid concerned

hasn’t done anything wrong. The stigma never leaves: Winerip writes about one

pair of twins, one of whom is now going to be two years behind the other at

school. That difference will never go away: Cheyanne, who is now, according

to her father, a better student than her twin, is going to know that all her

friends think that she’s the stupid one of the two.

If you visit the

page on "3rd Grade Reading Promotion and Retention" on Florida’s

official website, it gives you lots of whats and hows, but nothing about the

whys. This is one of those policies which simply doesn’t make any sense: while

decreasing student illiteracy is surely a good thing, there’s absolutely no

reason to believe that holding back 40,000 students a year is going to help

in the slightest. Winerip again:

Of Lake Silver’s 101 third graders, 23 failed. Stephen Leggett, the principal,

said that long before the test results, all 23 had been identified as lagging

in reading. All were getting extra help, with some seeing three specialists

a week, he said. "That test told us nothing we didn’t know," Mr.

Leggett said.

Mr. Leggett, who has been principal for 21 years, and his five third-grade

teachers believe none of the 23 should be held back. For reading, Lake Silver

students are grouped by ability, with the slowest readers placed in the smallest

group that gets the most individualized attention. Third graders are pushed

to read the most challenging books they can; some read sixth-grade books,

while others read second-grade books.

Mr. Leggett said next year, whether those 23 sit in a fourth-grade classroom

or third-grade classroom, they would do the same reading work — the

highest level they could. And they would get the same reading help in either

case.

Maybe not all Florida’s schools have the same system as Lake Silver: maybe

some still force all fourth-graders to read exactly the same books at exactly

the same time, with a devil-take-the-hindmost attitude to anybody who hasn’t

reached that level yet. Or maybe – and this is what I think happened in

Florida – that’s what Republican legislators think happens in

the public schools, since that’s the kind of rigid process which they feel comfortable

with. Maybe even that’s what they think should happen in public schools:

taking a lesson from Asian educational practices, with vast numbers of kids

reciting the lesson together. It’s a nightmarish mindset, but it’s the only

one I can think of which would produce this destructive policy.

I think that the most interesting thing about this legislation is the way it

assumes that all principals and teachers are liberal do-gooders who must be

prevented by law from letting children who fail a reading test remain in the

same class as their friends. The individuals who know these children best –

even their parents – have no control at all over whether they’re held

back or not. This goes against the parent-centered rhetoric of the Republican

party, but no one seems to have seen the contradiction here. The Florida legislature

believes one thing; the scientific literature, the school principals, the third-grade

teachers, and the third-grade parents all believe another. Yet the policy gets

signed into law, and tens of thousands of lives are seriously damaged as a result.

There’s Bush’s compassionate conservatism for you.

This entry was posted in Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Grade retention

  1. Stefan Geens says:

    If you only read one article about education policy this year, it has to be Michael Winerip’s magisterial column from May 21 in the New York Times.

    Is that the one you read this year?

    I wonder if Republicans didn’t get the idea from their private school upbringings. At least, the private schools I’ve been to (many) all had policies of retention if you failed your exams (albeit according to more broad-based criteria) in order to maintain their statistical reputations for academic excellence. Also, it seems to be a mainland European tradition, but there the public schools will eventually steer you to some kind of apprenticeship situation where retention is a moot point.

    Another observation that comes to mind is the curious precedence given to writing over maths and science. It’s as if here too the Republicans mistrust scientists and their annoying analytical habits. Best to hobble them now, lest they grow up and discover the gay gene.

  2. geoff says:

    i am confused… which part of this am i specifically not supposed to like?

    is it children don’t get over the ‘stigma’ of being held back?

    that 23% of florida third graders can’t read at their intended level?

    the florida school system despite its best efforts has failed 23% of its students?

    the florida school system hasn’t passed legislation to lower the test standard and effectively bell-curve away the whole problem (i think some other state/city/fifedom whose name eludes me, just recently did this to keep up with the ‘no-child-left-behind’ policy)?

    republicans don’t listen to scientific evidence?

    government policy doesn’t accomodate the needs of the individual?

    the florida legislature is out of touch with its constituents?

    a government that doesn’t represent its citizens somehow got into power?

    ohhhh where to start with so much to choose from?

  3. Matthew says:

    what are “real facts”?

  4. Felix says:

    Real facts, Matthew, in this context, are meaty pieces of factual information which matter. They’re being contrasted with anecdotal facts, which while they might be true as far as they go, are much harder to draw policy-level conclusions from. Even the best government policies affect a few individuals adversely, which is why I was happy when Winerip’s column moved off the human-interest and into the academic/statistical bases for thinking this policy to be disastrous.

  5. MS. BEA says:

    I THINK THIS IS CRAZY. I HAVE A 6 YR OLD SON . HE JUST TURN 6 ON MARCH 10TH OF THIS YEAR AND BECAUSE OF THAT TEST I’M FIGHTING TO GET HIM TO THE 1ST GRADE . I WAS TOLD KINDERGARTEN IS NOT MANDATORY , BUT THEY ARE FIGHTING ME . IT IS VERY UPSETTING.I THINK THEY NEED TO GET RID OF THE LAW. WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN IF THE KIDS KEEP REPEATING THAT TEST? ARE THEY GOING TO KEEP REPEATING THAT TEST? THIS IS REAL CRAZY.

  6. Nellie says:

    my child now 10, turning 11 in October has failed 3rd grade twice.. and is now doing third grade for the third time.

    I have begged the school to test him for learning disablity or even dyslexia.. nothing yet… no extra help for a child that has had his self esteem crashed… where even relatives laugh at the idea that he is mastering in 3rd grade but not in this reading test.

    According to what I have learned, if the school system has failed to appropriately provide the assistance a child needs to successfully pass these test… then they are obligated to promote the child…

    My opinion… do not vote for Bush… lets get a real governor that cares for the kids and proivdes them with extra help rather than just retaining them.

  7. Byers says:

    Correction:To the parent whose child is 10 years old and repeating the 3rd grade for the third time. Are you kidding me? Have your child tested for a learning disability. If repeating the grade once didn’t do it, repeating it again will not improve his/her scores. Have your child tested for hearing, vision, speech and language, and IQ to see if another problem is the cause of his/her academic difficulties. Refer your child to the districts CSE dept. They cannot tell you no. You have a right under IDEA to have your child tested. If there is not a learning disability, move your child to another school.

  8. Blake says:

    I didn’t realise how serious this problem was until I actually got into the classrooms and saw it. In a florida classrom- a typical one, there is about 5 or 6 students who have been retained either in 1 or 2 grade and the teachers swear by it.. Not all of them but the ones with the less experience or those who worked in the “good” schools. I know of a teacher right now 10 years on the job and has never had a retained student. DO es anyone else think that these kids are getting set up for failure? If it isn’t even proven why is it still going on? Ignorance is bliss to those who can’t see.

  9. Denise says:

    Hello,

    I’m a resident of Washington State…My daughter attends an elementary school that believes in the act of Retention. Last year I was able to prevent this from happening…I had her tutored of which brought her up 1/2 of the year but at the start of first Grade she was struggling. Which meant at the start of first grade she was at a level K-6 (kindergarten-6 month).

    I now face the issue again of having her retained to repeat 1st grade again at to which a friend of mine told me that it would be extremely bad for my soon to be 7 year old.

    Why is it when a child’s learning abilities are behind every other child in the school…the school really doesn’t want to help the child with a learning dissability…they would rather retain them and make the child go through it again.

    I wish there was an answer to this so that my children could do better. Maybe, if many parents start to petition the President so he would stop the pushing of little Kindergartners and First graders so HARD.

    How many of you were reading at the end of Kindergarten? NOT ME I can tell you that(I was just learning my colors, numbers, and letters, and beginning to write the numbers and letters); but, most of OUR schools are requesting that the children read by the time they reach 1 grade.

    This maddnes of pushing our children so hard that they have mental problems later in life has got to stop!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Don’t you agree? If so please respond….

    This act of NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND is Bull!!!!!Because in this case Educators would ease up on the children a bit more instead of pushing so hard. That is how I understand it to be…No Child Left Behind means not making them repeat grades just because the child does not read or do math at the same level as the other children. Or does not catch on to Multi-tasking simple instructions at the same pace as other children. Comparing children to other Children is wrong in my books…How about yours?

    The time I submitted this was not 6:10 p.m. Washington time zone is three hours behind.

    the time submitted is 3:26 p.m.

  10. Luis says:

    I think schools are only as good as the community they serve expect them to be. I am a parent of children that excel in academics. Although they do have the inclination for this, I have to add that it took effort, both at home and at school, by the parent(s) to make sure the institution is on a right track (i.e. students are well adjusted and learning their curricula).

    The moment the community relinquishes it’s responsibility on the education of their children and does not continue with the oversight of the activities in the school, then the Teacher, Principal, Schoolboard Memeber, State Legislator, Governor, President, will do with education what they will. An illustration of this is the case of Florida, where there is a voucher program that allows students to change schools from underperforming public schools, to non-public schools. The burden for the lack of performance is placed on the tax payer, that will pay for the voucher, and does not go to the root of the cause of the failure. One one hand, I have a difficult time accepting the students are always to blame for the poor performance and on the other, the people running the school may not be scrutinized. If the school is not performing up to a minimum standard, then the people running it should be replaced with those who will pull-it-up-by-the britches and restore it’s performance instead of allowing the student body, under this circumstance, to leave for another school without correcting the situation.

  11. Dan says:

    I came across this old article when trying to lookup ways I can help my child pass third grade.

    I live in Florida and I support the the current process of testing children and making sure they know what they are doing before going on to the next grade level. A child can make A’s in his or her classes by doing homework and doing marginally well on tests. It is, or at least should be by now, common knowledge that school grades are primarily based on busy work. I know from my own experiences in school where I made some C’s, D’s, and even an F because I refused to do busy work, yet I excelled at the tests.

    A test ensures that an individual has the knowledge to perform a given task. Homework ensures that an individual can do repetitive tasks with assistance (e.g. parent, book, teacher, friend, etc.).

    Just look at colleges. Rarely do you see a college level course have a large percentage of the grade based on homework. The reason is that mastery of the subject is not tested.

    Does this mean I think the entire process is foolproof? No, absolutely not, I think that some students do have problems with tests. Those students should have additional assistance. However, I think that we have far too many illiterate fools graduating everyday as well.

    I know people who have just graduated high school and go immediately to college, only to start out taking remedial courses because they are unable to grasp eighth grade reading, writing, and mathematics. In my opinion these people should have their diploma taken from them and be forced to go back to high school. It is a disgrace that we let people pass just to avoid the “stigma” of failing. We as a people need to learn that failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Provided one learns from his or her failures.

  12. susan says:

    Hi,

    I have worked for a title 1 school in Florida for the past five years. Most of the children retained, in my view, have nothing more wrong with them then being “curriculum impaired”. It is very sad to see our youth viewing themselves as failures before the age of 10.

    I am not afraid of speaking out or losing my job for doing so. I know in my heart that we are doing our children a lifelong terrible disservice by not protesting NCLB.

    I read recently about the television program titled “Jehrico”. sp? At any rate, its producers decided to cancel the show due to lack of ratings. Proponents of the program joined together and protested. Apparently there was a character on the program who always said “nuts”. So, this group decided to bombard the producers with bags of nuts as a protest. The producers in turn returned the show to the air for more episodes.

    There is no reason we as parents and teachers can not follow their lead. What would you think of doing something like:

    Dear NCLB legislators,

    No child left behind?

    I have been left behind ____ times!

    Post a picture of your child (not smiling) in/or on the letter, frame it (so it will take up lots of room!) and mail it to:

    US Department of Education

    400 Maryland Ave, SW

    Washington, DC 20202

  13. susan says:

    Hi,

    I have worked for a title 1 school in Florida for the past five years. Most of the children retained, in my view, have nothing more wrong with them then being “curriculum impaired”. It is very sad to see our youth viewing themselves as failures before the age of 10.

    I am not afraid of speaking out or losing my job for doing so. I know in my heart that we are doing our children a lifelong terrible disservice by not protesting NCLB.

    I read recently about the television program titled “Jerhico”. sp? At any rate, its producers decided to cancel the show due to lack of ratings. Proponents of the program joined together and protested. Apparently there was a character on the program who always said “nuts”. So, this group decided to bombard the producers with bags of nuts as a protest. The producers in turn returned the show to the air for more episodes.

    There is no reason we as parents and teachers can not follow their lead. What would you think of doing something like:

    Dear NCLB legislators,

    No child left behind?

    I have been left behind ____ times!

    Post a picture of your child (not smiling) in/or on the letter, frame it (so it will take up lots of room!) and mail it to:

    US Department of Education

    400 Maryland Ave, SW

    Washington, DC 20202

  14. susan says:

    Hi,

    I have worked for a title 1 school in Florida for the past five years. Most of the children retained, in my view, have nothing more wrong with them then being “curriculum impaired”. It is very sad to see our youth viewing themselves as failures before the age of 10.

    I am not afraid of speaking out or losing my job for doing so. I know in my heart that we are doing our children a lifelong terrible disservice by not protesting NCLB.

    I read recently about the television program titled “Jericho”. At any rate, its producers decided to cancel the show due to lack of ratings. Proponents of the program joined together and protested. Apparently there was a character on the program who always said “nuts”. So, this group decided to bombard the producers with bags of nuts as a protest. The producers in turn returned the show to the air for more episodes.

    There is no reason we as parents and teachers can not follow their lead. What would you think of doing something like:

    Dear NCLB legislators,

    No child left behind?

    I have been left behind ____ times!

    Post a picture of your child (not smiling) in/or on the letter, frame it (so it will take up lots of room!) and mail it to:

    US Department of Education

    400 Maryland Ave, SW

    Washington, DC 20202

  15. voucher codes restaurants
    Do you have a Twitter handle I could follow?

  16. Susan Ramirez says:

    Although some research has been done on the negative effects of retaining a child, perhaps not enough has been done on the positive effects of retention. I have been an elementary teacher/interventionist for over 20 years. It’s a very hard decision to retain a child. All the pros and cons are carefully weighed. Of course research will show that students retained have a higher drop out rate, but that student didn’t necessarily drop out because he/she was retained at some point in his/her life. The student was highly likely to drop out anyway because he/she is frustrated and unsuccessful with academics. I have had many students who have been retained and are now thriving and succeeding. I also know many adults who were retained as youngsters and are now very successful. Perhaps more research should be done on the success rate of retention. How many graduates were once retained. And what made them successful. Retention of a child needs to be given very careful thought and consideration. If a child is behind because he missed too much school, got identified with a learning disability (which is now being addressed as needed), had a crisis during the year which slowed his growth, or was diagnosed with ADD/ADHD so late in the year that the academics taught the previous part of the year were not mastered, or perhaps if the students were left the majority of the year with a permanent substitute who was not qualified to meet his/her personal needs and learning styles, etc, perhaps he will have a sudden growth spurt if afforded a second chance at success with the same curriculum/grade level. Just like all things, retention needs to be given a lot of thought. It may not work for all children, but then again, nothing does.

Comments are closed.