Mandatory Retention A Necessary, But Last Resort

It’s hard to find a researcher who has anything good to say about forcing underperforming school children to repeat grades. But it’s just as hard to see how anyone wins if teachers face classrooms salted with kids reading years below grade level.

This is where the discussion of mandatory retention must begin. Sure, it must be a last resort, as it is in a new plan being floated by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. Remove mandatory retention from the discussion, however, and you get a status quo that virtually guarantees failure in schools around the country.

In Denver, said teachers union chief Kim Ursetta, it is not unheard of for kids reading three or four years below grade level to share a classroom with kids reading three or four years above grade level.

When that happens, nobody wins.

“I had a little girl would couldn’t read simple words in fourth grade,” Ursetta said of her own experience. “When she left me, she read at second or third grade level.” But the student still couldn’t score acceptably on aptitude tests by which students and teacher are almost exclusively judged these days.

By that measure, both the little girl and Ursetta failed.At the same time, scholars can point to few, if any, studies that say much good about forcing underperforming students to repeat grades.

“The problem with retention is that it just doesn’t work to raise the achievement of kids,” said Ken Howe, an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “It puts them through a humiliating experience.”

So humiliating that some studies show two years of mandatory retention almost guarantee a student will eventually drop out of school.

Ursetta said strict retention policies in Chicago seem to have run against that tide. But she emphasized that the teachers’ union proposal in Denver is front-loaded with all sorts of remedial efforts that seek to let kids catch up without holding them back.

“It’s not just retention,” she said. “It’s extra intervention. It’s watch lists.”

Forcing children into after-school tutorials or mandatory summer school are preferable to forcing them to repeat a grade. Smaller classes that insure more individual attention for struggling students might also work, CU’s Howe suggests.

Still, at some point, for the term “public education” to mean what it says, a line must be drawn. The teachers’ union would draw that line by retaining third graders who score unsatisfactory on the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) reading test, whose benchmarks tests in math and reading are unsatisfactory and whose scores on the Developmental Reading Assessment is less than 30.

Fifth graders who score unsatisfactory in two of three fourth grade CSAP tests and whose reading development score was below 50 would be held back, unless they did OK on an alternative standardized test, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

Eighth graders couldn’t go to high school with unsatisfactory or “partially proficient” scores on two of three seventh-grade CSAP tests, unless they did better on an alternative standardized test.

It all sounds like bureaucratese. But within the minutia lurks the recognition that the current way of doing business doesn’t work.

“This conversation needs to take place,” said Ursetta.

It has to.

In Colorado, the state tried to mandate educational survival skills with the Colorado Basic Literacy Act. Here’s how the state education department website describes the law:

The Colorado Basic Literacy Act was enacted in 1997 by the Colorado general assembly in order to ensure that by third grade all students have the literacy skills essential for success in school and life.  The Act calls for local districts to identify students who are reading below grade level and provide them with necessary reading interventions.

This begs the question of why Ursetta would encounter a child in fourth grade who could only read one-syllable words with a few letters.

The answer is found in Colorado’s willingness to let local school districts set their own retention policies. Nobody wants to hold kids back, least of all parents, who in some school districts get to make the call.

Accountability is the buzz word among politicians, especially those who love to batter teachers unions and the teachers themselves.

Ursetta says she and other teachers welcome accountability in a system that gives them and their students a reasonable chance to succeed.

Such a system includes full-day pre-school and mandatory full-day kindergarten.
Such a system probably requires a change in truancy laws, which in Colorado don’t kick in until a child is seven, said Ursetta.

Such a system will demand early intervention and mandatory remedial programs for those who fall behind.

But finally – as a last resort – such a system must also find ways to let the tough love of mandatory retention rescue kids from a lifetime of failure.

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