Flunking 3rd-graders a bad fad

Hold-backs add social stigma


Fads come and go in education, and these days a hot trend is to hold back third-graders who fail standardiz­ed reading tests. In 2002, Florida was among the first to launch a tough, statewide policy for “retention,” as educators call it. Oklahoma will start its policy in the fall of 2013. Last month, Ohio Gov. John Kasich outlined a program to raise the bar for promotion to fourth grade. No part of the country has been spared.

This push marks a pendulum swing in a longstandi­ng debate over whether it’s wiser to promote students along with their peers, even if they are doing poorly, or to hold them back. For years, schools erred on the side of social promotion, after reams of studies showed that flunking a grade was a huge blow that often led to high dropout rates.

Now the thinking has reversed. In an era when high-stakes standardiz­ed tests are used to hold schools and teachers accountabl­e for achievemen­t, lawmakers have latched onto them as a simplistic benchmark for holding students back: Those with low scores on third-grade tests will repeat that grade.

Before more states take this plunge, they ought to look at the experience in districts that began using tough retention policies a decade ago. Forcing a student to repeat a grade is seldom a plus and could do more harm than good. If it’s simply a do-over with the same material or a bad teacher, there’s no reason to expect better result. And what about the stigma peers attach to flunking? Kids are more than test scores. They’re youngsters who might be teased or bullied and could well miss the friends who moved on without them.

Academic research has found mixed results from holding students back:

uunder a tough policy adopted in Chicago in 1999, students held back in elementary school suffered lower rates of learning and a developmen­tal mismatch with younger students in their class, according to the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research. Some entered high school at 16 years old, instead of 14, and were more likely to drop out.

ua new study of the Florida program appears to be the first to find that third-graders who had been held back later outperform­ed classmates who scored almost as poorly on tests but were socially promoted. The Florida program emphasizes remedial reading and high-performing teachers in the do-over year — which might account for its success.

uin New York City, the non-profit RAND Corporatio­n also found positive results in a program that identified at-risk students early and provided extra support, including summer school and retesting, to prevent them having to repeat a grade.

The takeaway? What’s helpful in these programs is what accompanie­s them — identifyin­g at-risk students early and giving them special attention — not retention itself. Nor is retention the inexpensiv­e fix many lawmakers imagine. Forcing a student to repeat a grade costs an average of $10,000 per student per year. That money could be far better used to provide special help for struggling readers.

Remedial programs are often more effective and cheaper in the long run than holding kids back. Consider Reading Recovery, a one-on-one tutoring program that has served more than 2 million first graders since 1984. The cost? About $3,750 per pupil — less than half the average cost of holding a student back. Better yet, 75% of participan­ts are successful.

If lawmakers and educators want students to read — and want to spend taxpayer money wisely — identify them early, provide special programs and make repeating a grade the last resort.

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