The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Question of Student Retention

on March 19, 2016

Today and tomorrow I will post a two-parter on holding kids back.  The first one is an article I came accross a few days ago that was posted by Rush Walsh on his blogin 2014.  The second is my own account of what we did at our school in Oregon when the question of holding back a particular student came before us.

P.S.  Walsh’s essay refers to the work of David Berliner and Gene Glass, both of whom I admire.  If you live in the Portland area be aware that those researchers will be speaking on March 31 at 7 P.M. at Concordia University.  I will certainly attend, and you should, too.


So what happens if students don’t score in the proficient or better range in the upcoming tests aligned with the Common Core? In many states, either by law or by policy, students will be retained in their current grade. Retention in third grade is the law in Florida and Arizona when children are not proficient in reading by the end of third grade. In New York City parents are told that “students with the lowest 10 percent of raw (total) scores on the State tests were recommended… for retention and summer school.  Many other states are considering such policies.

Retaining students in their grade, whether driven by standardized test scores, poor grades or misbehavior, has long been popular in American education. Even among teachers and administrators, retention is often seen as a way either well-meaningly to give a child “the gift of a year” to grow or more punitively as a way to threaten and cajole miscreants.

Retaining a child in a grade is a momentous decision in the life of that child and that family. Parents, full of hope and dreams for their child, may find their view of the child as a learner permanently altered. It very likely will negatively impact the way the child views himself or herself as a learner. Given the high stakes, educators better be sure they get the decision right when they decide to retain.

Does retention work? While there may be some anecdotal evidence that retention may work for some children some time, the overwhelming research evidence indicates that retention is bad for kids.

In their well-documented and very useful book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, respected researchers David Berliner and Gene V. Glass, take on this issue. Here is what they have to say on the topic:

The decision to retain a student subsequently results in that student having more negative outcomes in all areas of academic achievement, and in social emotional areas of development such as peer relationships, self-esteem, and classroom behavior.

 Additionally, Berliner and Glass found that there is a greatly increased likelihood of retained students dropping out of school, being suspended and having high absenteeism. Not surprisingly, retention policies impact a disproportionate number of poor and minority children, further exacerbating the “achievement gap.”

So, if not retention, what? Social promotion, the promoting of students to the next grade even though they did not meet the standards of the previous grade, is widely derided by people in and out of the public education field, perhaps justly so. There is something about social promotion that smacks of educators abandoning their responsibility. Fortunately, this is not an either or situation. Instead of retention, what struggling students need is attention.

It costs, on average, about 11,000 dollars to retain a child (the cost of an extra year of school). By not retaining children, schools will save thousands of dollars in costs, not to mention all the human costs related to high drop-out rates and behavior issues related to retention. With this money schools need to give students the attention they need, in the form of programs that Berliner and Glass, among others, have found to be effective. Individual tutoring, summer programs and early intervention programs, such as Reading Recovery, have been shown to be effective ways to provide struggling students with the attention needed to “catch-up.” For high-poverty areas, the money could also be better spent on early childhood programs, wrap around health programs and smaller class sizes.

Retaining students is a shortcut answer to a problem that actually works against our goals as educators. Educators would do better to attend to their struggling students with programmatic changes than with this mean spirited “hold them back” approach.

Let us attend to our struggling students, not condemn them to the false promise of improvement through grade retention.






One response to “The Question of Student Retention

  1. Don Bellairs says:

    My vision of future public education services removes the hierarchal nature of schools that creates inequities and bestows incredible influence on people unequipped to make decisions about matters as potentially disruptive to development and health as retention can be.
    Every kids fails for different reasons but I’ve always believed grades, as we use them in American education, were a far more efficient indicator of the success of the relationship between a teacher and student then they were a metric for academic achievement. If we pool classes of kids and remove grade labels, pool the teachers so that a GROUP is responsible for success, not an individual, and if we find a way to modify our offerings so that kids are not evaluated on how well they learn what the teacher knows, we will move past most of the need for conversations about retention.


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