Does Retention Help English Learners?

Many teachers have questions about retaining English Learners.  At one point many immigrant children were unilaterally retained, and even sometimes put back several grades with much younger children. While that is no longer the case in most districts, research suggests that English Learners are still retained at higher rates than their native English speaking peers.

This is despite a history of federal Civil Rights legislation, starting with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which states that a person cannot be discriminated against on the basis of National Origin (of which language has been determined by the courts to be a subset), designed to prevent such practices. In other words, English Learners should not be retained simply because they don’t know English. And yet, for English Learners everything in the classroom is language embedded. So while theoretically an English Learner could be retained for failure to progress in another subject, such as say, math, it’s almost impossible to isolate math skills from language skills. How can we be sure the student understood the math instruction? How can we be sure they have the language mastery to communicate the knowledge they do have? If you’ve seen a math test in the last decade then you know it’s more a reading test with a few numbers than arithmetic assessments of old. So how can we be sure the student read and comprehended the language of the test accurately? Even with modification and accommodations in place, we can never really be sure we have captured what a student knows and can do at lower levels of English proficiency. The bottom line is that for the student developing English, any assessment is foremost a language assessment, not a content knowledge assessment.

You can see how teasing apart content and language knowledge in order to make instructional decisions can be very difficult for teachers.  Retention is a complex issue, with many educators on either side of the fence, passionately for and against. Research on retention in the last three decades however (in the age of accountability, high stakes testing, and gateway assessments where retention has skyrocketed in some states), has failed to document long term gains. In fact, most gains are lost within the first few years after a student is retained. According to UNC Chapel Hill’s Partners in Research Forum’s review of studies, eighty-six percent of the 63 retention studies included in the review, actually showed lower achievement for retained students than for comparable non-retained students.  Since retention is not evidence-based and could be considered punitive due to the myriad of documented long-term negative effects associated with it, it could be considered discriminatory- especially in schools that disproportionately retain ELs. 

When we do look at retention for older ELs that have acquired English or former ELs, teachers need to provide documentation of the modifications and accommodations they have given throughout the year, interventions they have enacted, and formative assessments that document the child is not making growth. The WIDA Can Do’s are a valuable resource to set realistic expectations for growth. Teachers can also look at students’ ACCESS scores, which often capture a more accurate picture of growth over time than grade level assessments.  An EL’s growth should also not be compared to their native English speaking peers, but rather to other ELs of the same language background, age range, proficiency level, and years of English instruction.

It is also helpful to document why a teacher believes retention would be beneficial. In other words, what would be different about the instruction in the retained year? If the instructional techniques were not effective within the original year, it is not sufficient to repeat the same information in the same way.  In other words, If it didn’t work the first time, what makes you think it will the second time around? Retention is not an intervention. It doesn’t guarantee a child’s unique needs will be met nor that skill deficits will be addressed, unless educators strategically place appropriate supports in place.

There is no specific research that says retention benefits ELs, despite is once being a wide-spread practice. Most researchers agree that the benefits of retention are short term at best with long-term detriments that can only be seen through longitudinal data that spans 10-15 years of a child’s education. If you are going to retain a child, it less emotionally damaging in younger grades, however, drop-out rate is exponentially higher for ALL retained students, not just those retained later in their education. Before making any retention decisions do a thorough review of students’ educational histories. Talk with the ESL teacher in your building. He or she can provide insight, as well as resources to help you make informed and beneficial decisions.

If you liked this article check out To Retain or Not to Retain? Or learn more about modifying instruction and making accommodations for English Learners in these two articles; Modifications and Accommodations for English Learners, and Scaffolding Assessment to Access Student Learning.

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