To Retain Or Not To Retain

It’s a letter no parent wants to receive—one stating, “Your child is eligible for retention.” For a parent, this can set off a maelstrom of uncertainty and indecision. Is retention the right move for my child? Would another year allow him to mature? Will she be forever embarrassed? Will he be made fun of by his peers? These and other concerns make retention decisions difficult for families.

The legislation-backed, high-stakes testing implemented in recent years has increased retentions across the country, despite evidence from the last three 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 at a staggering cost of 14 billion dollars. But those numbers aren’t distributed equally. Students are most likely to be retained in rst and ninth grades. Minorities, males, 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. Yet studies on the effectiveness of retention are mixed at best, with many citing negative psychological impacts that can be dif cult for students to overcome, and short term gains that don’t last beyond two to four years. In fact, retention is one of the strongest predictors of a student dropping out, increasing a child’s risk of not graduating by 5 times or more. For students who are retained twice, dropping out is almost a guarantee. While retention cannot be identi ed as the sole causal factor in what is clearly 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 bene t 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. Another caveat is that retention creates age disparity. While ve- 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, even above losing a parent.

What’s a parent to do? Prevention of academic failure is much more effective than retention after the fact. Parents can decrease the likelihood of ever receiving a retention letter by actively participating in their child’s education in these ways:

You can access most school systems’ standards for learning online. By being aware of what your child should be learning and when, you can be more alert to issues or problems that may derail their progress.

If your child is a struggling reader in first grade, that difficulty will impact his or her learning in every other subject area. If you have looked at a math test recently, you will note they are extremely text-dense. Ignoring early signs of a problem or thinking a child will “grow out of it” can have a negative ripple effect on their future ability to master content.

Homework gives you a glimpse into what’s going on in your child’s classroom. While no one likes to do it, monitoring homework allows you to see your child’s weaknesses and strengths, highlighting areas your child may need more extensive help in.

The end of the quarter is not the time to nd out that your child hasn’t turned in a class project or completed homework. While a report card definitely gives useful information, every nine weeks is not often enough to monitor your child’s academic progress. Open the lines of communication early and utilize them often, even just to check in.

If you know your child needs help, but don’t know how to provide it, talk to their classroom teacher first. He or she should be able to provide strategies and resources. Check into tutoring, mentoring and behavior-management programs provided by the school itself, and if these are unavailable or ineffective, seek professional help.

Retention is one option, but it is not always the only route. Summer school, extended day, tutoring or other interventions are sometimes available if you do not believe retention is in the best interest of your child.

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