With the implementation of the new policy in the Schenectady City School District, grade retention is again the topic of discussion among many parents and educators in the community.
The Schenectady City School District has made a decision to no longer consider grade retention to be a first-line intervention for struggling students. The New York Association of School Psychologist (NYASP) supports this decision, based on the extensive evidence that grade retention is not an effective intervention for students who are experiencing academic and/or behavioral challenges, and in large part, due to the fact that additional supports will be in place for those students who are struggling.
The issue of student grade retention has been debated for years. A popularly held belief that opting not to retain students means the simple promotion to the next grade. It is a practice that has been under scrutiny and with good reason, as the practice of social promotion is also ineffective.
Grade retention makes sense on some levels. It sounds logical to keep children in their current grade until they master the curriculum before moving onto to the next grade where more complex concepts are taught.
Unfortunately, this just does not work.
Research has consistently and repeatedly shown grade retention to be ineffective. More often than not, the reason that children are not successful in school has to do with multiple and complex issues. It may be problems at home; it may be that the child does not like school; it could be that they have a learning disability. Even after retention, the child’s learning disability, mental health issues, family violence, etc. will still be there.
One of the reasons that grade retention garners support from teachers and parents is that children often do well during the repeated grade. However, by the third year after retention, academic struggles typically emerge again. Additionally, children may exhibit new or more notable behavior problems.
Retention is highly correlated to at-risk behaviors including experimenting with drugs and alcohol and/or engaging in risky sexual behavior. Students retained once are 5 to 11 times more likely to drop out of school. If they are retained twice, the likelihood of dropping out jumps to 95 percent.
A major risk factor in all of these issues is being “over-age for grade.” No matter what problems retention may “solve,” it automatically makes children over-age for grade, thus putting them at increased risk for a host of negative outcomes. While it may be that some children have benefited from being retained, the typical outcomes for most children support the conclusion that retention will more likely have a negative, lifelong impact.
If neither grade retention nor social promotion is an answer for struggling students, how will their needs be addressed?
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) argues for a “Promotion Plus” model. With this approach, students remain on-grade for age, but have appropriate supports to address the areas that initially led to the difficulties. For example, the child’s educational team may work on understanding how he or she learns, or how to help with anxiety.
The key is understanding why the child is struggling. The Promotion Plus option is more economical and efficient. It addresses problems in manner that does not create more serious problems down the road. In addition to the Promotion Plus option for children who are at-risk of being retained, we know that there are numerous approaches that are helpful in preventing academic failure.
For example, the provision of high quality instruction in a safe learning environment is something that we simply owe our children. Other strategies such as access to meaningful after school and summer school opportunities, a “response to intervention” model, and intensive academic intervention services can address concerns as soon as they appear, without placing children at-risk.
The problems with retention are presented clearly in the Schenectady City School District’s Student Retention: Intentional Decision Making policy.
In sum, retention is ineffective, costly, and harmful. While repeating a grade may produce short-term improvements, it increases the risk for long-term academic failure, social difficulties, behavioral challenges, delinquent behavior, and other negative outcomes.
NYASP applauds the Schenectady City School District for eliminating an automatic policy that was harmful to children and amounted to educational malpractice. As parents, educators, and community members we have the responsibility to act in the best interest of the children in our care. By eliminating a policy of mandatory grade retention the Schenectady City School District has done just that.
This column was signed by Dr. Andrew Shanock, president; Britton Schnurr; Kelly Caci and John Garruto of the New York Association of School Psychologists in Albany.