To Retain or Not to Retain?
Every teacher’s been in that position. It’s the end of April and retention lists are due. For even veteran teachers, this can set off a maelstrom of uncertainty and indecision. Is retention the right move for a child? Would another year allow him to mature? Will she be emotionally scarred? Will he be made fun of by his peers? These and other concerns make retention decisions difficult, and they should be. It is a life altering decision that impacts children for years to come and should never be taken lightly.
The legislation-backed, high-stakes testing implemented in recent years has increased retentions across the country, despite evidence from the last four decades of study which suggests that retention may not be the answer to helping struggling students succeed. Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, it is estimated that over two million children are retained every year in the US at a staggering cost of 14 billion dollars. But those numbers aren’t distributed equally. Students are most likely to be retained in first and ninth grades. Minorities, males, English Learners, students of low socio-economic status, and students with reading or language development delays, are more likely than others to be retained. Students who live on the East Coast have an increased likelihood of being retained over other geographic areas. Sixteen states and Washington D.C. actually have mandatory retention laws for students failing to meet proficiency standards. Yet studies on the effectiveness of retention are mixed at best, with many citing negative psychological impacts that can be difficult for students to overcome and short term gains that don’t last beyond two to five years. So while a kindergarten teacher may feel more confident sending a child on to first grade after a retention, in reality, by fifth grade that same child will be no better off than had they moved on with their age-appropriate peers. 10-15 year longitudinal studies actually suggest low performing students who are retained perform equal to or worse than low performing students who are not retained. In fact, retention is one of the strongest predictors of a student dropping out, increasing a child’s risk of not graduating by 5x’s or more (depending on the study). For students who are retained twice, dropping out is almost a guarantee. While retention cannot be identified as the sole causal factor in what is plainly a complicated issue, it has also clearly been ineffective in remediating students and helping them to succeed long term.
One problem with retention is it often fails to address the underlying causes of academic failure. For example, if a student has poor attendance and misses large portions of instruction during the course of a year, it would seem retention would benefit the child by giving him or her an additional opportunity to master missed material. Yet, unless the attendance issue is dealt with and improved upon, the child will continue to struggle academically in subsequent years. These students may make short term gains during the year they are retained, but continued truancy will result in gaps that will plague them in the years beyond. The same could be true of a student with a learning disability. Until the underlying causes are addressed, any gains made by retention will be only temporary, a byproduct of repeated exposure and increased mastery time. For English Learners, there’s no convincing evidence that retention helps them learn English any faster than they would have if promoted. Another caveat to consider is that retention creates age disparity. While five and six year olds may be similar in size and development, age differences become much more noticeable in upper grades, especially when students begin hitting developmental and social milestones like growing facial hair or getting their driver’s licenses. When retention occurs in older grades, there are dramatic emotional and social consequences. In a 2002 study, 6th grade students rated retention as one of the most stressful life events, more than going blind and second only to losing a parent.
With all that said, why is retention still so widely practiced? It’s my personal opinion, retention is a Hail Mary, stop-gap measure we resort to as educators, not because we want to, but when we don’t know what else to do. We know students will not get the level of support they need if we move them on, so we gamble that giving them another year will be benefit them, even when research says that’s not likely to be the case.
So what do we do? MTSS offers one solution. If MTSS is implemented properly, and educators and school are given the correct training, materials, time, and funding (and that’s a big IF), it can offer students the intensity of support and individual needs-based instruction that would give teachers more confidence in promoting children who may not be on grade level quite yet. If teachers knew that students would get the interventions they needed to make not just continues, but catch-up growth, we could send students along without worry and reallocate some of that 14 billion in funding towards measures that make measurable differences in student learning outcomes. We have to change the way we think about retention and intervention, taking a long-range view of both data and student growth. We have to be collaborative across grade levels, using data-driving, research-based instruction with proven effective outcomes and stop doing things just because that’s the way they’ve always been done according to arbitrary deadlines. If we want different student outcomes, we have to change our beliefs and actions as educators. We have to conceive of education differently- including traditional schooling formats, schedules, and curricula. We can’t afford to make decisions that impact kids’ lives based on traditions or feelings, we have to change the face of education today so that we can change our students’ tomorrows.
Check out some additional research on retention and high school dropout: