It's Pass Or Fail On The Issue Of Social Promotions Don't Hold Kids Back - Make Sure They Have Academic Help

Posted: February 08, 1999

Most Americans believe that grade retention is an effective means for raising academic achievement.

They attribute educational problems to lax promotional standards. Thus, President Clinton received thunderous applause in his State of the Union address when he vowed to end social promotion.

What most Americans don't know is that huge numbers of students are already being retained in grade without its bringing any improvement in achievement. According to a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, 20 percent of all students nationally have repeated at least one grade by the time they reach high school age.

In large urban school districts, the rate is 50 percent or more. Ending so-called social promotion would mean retaining even higher percentages of students and holding some students back a second time.

Controlled studies show that repeating a grade does not improve achievement.

In some studies, such as a study in Baltimore, retained students show significant improvement during the repeat year itself, but this boost is not sustained in the years following retention.

Dr. James Grissom and I conducted a series of studies in Chicago, Austin and an unnamed suburban district in the Northeast. After controlling for factors known to affect dropout statistics - such as achievement, race and socioeconomic level - we found that dropout rates for retained students were 17 percent to 30 percent higher than for similar students who had not been retained.

What are the alternatives to grade retention?

Tutoring, after-school programs, summer school and intensive reading programs such as Reading Recovery all have positive effects on achievement. More than any other single problem, students who are failing in school need help with reading.

To his credit, Clinton claims to be against both social promotion and retention and hopes to provide funding for summer school for a tiny fraction of the students at risk of failing. Although these interventions will help, they still may not be sufficient to ensure that students meet grade-level standards.

My recommendation is that such students be "placed" in the next grade with an individualized education plan agreed to by parents and the school describing exactly what interventions will be provided to help each student meet academic standards.

Lorrie A. Shepard is an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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