Colorado legislature, school districts debate effectiveness of having struggling students repeat a grade
It can be emotional and controversial, but Colorado may soon find out whether the prospect of retention — having struggling students repeat a grade rather than have “social promotion” move them on with their peers — might also spur parents and schools to more effectively focus on early literacy.
Though experts remain divided on whether retention helps or hinders students over time, several states are considering policies that would employ the practice to ensure that students don’t move ahead without a firm academic foundation.
While some policies mandate retention of the lowest-performing students based on test scores, Colorado’s version, House Bill 1238, would advise parents as early as their child’s kindergarten year of looming literacy problems and offer remedial help — but also let them know that retention is on the table.
“We’re not talking about mandatory retention, we’re talking about retention decisions being left at the school level,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, a former school superintendent and one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “Really, this is a plea to parents to read to children, to spend time with their children developing language early in their lives.”
Like many of the legislative efforts around the country, this one was influenced by a highly touted 2002 Florida policy built around retention. Colorado’s less-stringent version would basically rewrite a 1997 state law addressing literacy to focus heavily on interventions in the early grades, using the recommendation of retention as a “lever” to get the attention of parents and educators.
If serious reading problems persist through third grade, the district would have final say on passing the student on to fourth grade.
Hamner, co-sponsor of the bipartisan bill with Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, said the effort also was fueled by nearly 6,000 unsatisfactory third-grade reading CSAP scores last year.
She expects pushback over a reform that would come without additional funding as well as resistance from those who would rather see efforts directed toward preschool programs.
There’s also philosophical opposition.
Oliver Grenham, chief education officer at the Adams County 50 district, oversaw the gradual elimination of social promotion there three years ago in favor of a performance-based advancement system that has begun to show some achievement gains. Although he applauds the sense of urgency reflected in the proposed law, he believes that parents can be engaged in other ways and points to research on negative long-term effects of retention.
“It’s just something students don’t recover from emotionally,” said Grenham, whose district doesn’t use grade levels and therefore doesn’t practice retention per se. “So there needs to be a different way to get students to achieve rather than using a big stick.”
These days, retention lies at the crossroads of conflicting perceptions of academic research.
Impact of retention
Deeply held beliefs dating back to the early 1900s contended that retention improved achievement and the only arguments against it revolved around social concerns such as diminished self-esteem, said Lorrie Shepard, dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
But that changed over time.
More recently, a preponderance of studies have shown that holding kids back a year has a negative effect or no effect at all on academic achievement. Research also has calculated the dropout rate for retained students to be as much as 10 times higher than those who continued on to the next grade, Shep ard said.
“Retention is like prescribing medicine that on average has had very serious side-effects and is harmful more often than it helps,” added Shepard. “Would you prescribe that medicine?”
Some reformers answer yes, with two-pronged reasoning: they claim the older studies are flawed, and the new model pioneered in Florida that mandates retention for low-achievers has shown enticing promise.
That test-based policy retains low-performing third-graders, requires them to attend summer school and assigns them a “high-quality” teacher.
Studies have found a statistically significant improvement in reading, math and science — an effect that dissipated over subsequent years, but remained “meaningful,” said Marcus Winters, an assistant professor of education at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and a leading researcher of the Florida phenomenon.
The policy hasn’t been in effect long enough to determine its impact on graduation rates. And because several factors contribute to the overall policy, researchers haven’t been able to determine the precise impact of retention.
“Intuitively, it seems retention is a more likely driver of the magnitude we’re seeing here, but we can’t prove it,” Winters said. “We can say, with very high confidence, that the Florida policy has a large positive effect on student achievement.”
That has been enough to prompt other states — including Oklahoma, Arizona, Indiana, Iowa, New Mexico and Tennessee — to try some variation on that theme.
“It’s a policy that makes sense to a lot of people,” Winters said.
Retention, under the right circumstances, has always made sense at the James Irwin Charter Elementary School in Colorado Springs.
Tears, frustration and a full range of emotions can emerge when parents learn that the school wants to hold their child back a year to catch up on basic skills. A few pull their kids out and enroll them elsewhere. Some cry tears of relief.
Those who stay find a culture that aims to remove the stigma of retention, provides a multitude of supports and channels kids into leadership roles as they regain their academic footing.
“It’s not respectful to keep them in a state of always hanging on by their fingernails,” said principal Elizabeth Berg.”They can catch their breath, have that confidence of knowing what they know, feeling the dignity of mastery.”
At James Irwin, they don’t even use the word “retention.” They talk about the “gift of time” — a term the school claims as its own but that has grown into widespread use among proponents of retention.
Last year, 20 of the school’s roughly 530 students in grades K-5 were offered the “gift.” Three withdrew.
“When you do the gift to time the right way, at the right time, for the right reasons, it truly is a gift that keeps on giving,” said assistant principal Cindee Will. “It’s not a Band-Aid. It gives for a lifetime.”
Challenges spring up
Jay Greene, who heads the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and collaborated on research with Winters, said using retention like Florida did can work — but that it’s hard to do well. He notes a number of “land mines” that beset other attempts, and from which Colorado could learn.
New York, he said, set the achievement bar too low. Chicago discovered some schools cheating on the tests to determine who would be held back. In Georgia, many schools simply chose not to follow the retention process simply because they didn’t believe in it.
“It’s a little bit of a harsh policy in that it puts pressure on the school, the parents and the kids to perform,” Greene said of the Florida effort. “Education is some balance of pressure and leniency.”
Harrison School District 2 in Colorado Springs leaped ahead with a stringent use of retention last year when superintendent Mike Miles launched a five-year program to eliminate social promotion. The district began by holding back about 10 percent of eighth-graders and placing them in a new High School Preparatory Academy.
And the process will continue this spring as the district prepares to retain a similar proportion of third-, fifth- and eight-graders — a percentage based on district data of students performing well below grade level.
The concept has not been well-received by everyone. Some eighth-graders, Miles said, simply left the district when they learned they couldn’t move on with their peers.
“And we suspect we’ll have some others leave once we hold back third-, fifth- and eighth-graders in May,” he said. “But we have a whole bunch of parents who realize this is the right thing for their child”
Even if Colorado’s proposed legislation passes, Miles notes that districts wanting to eliminate social promotion would have a lot of pieces to put in place.
“I think it’s going to take a while,” he said. “And maybe it should. There’s a lot to invest to get this right. If districts haven’t gone down that path yet, then it should take them longer.”
Kevin Simpson: 303-954-1739 or firstname.lastname@example.org