- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2004

President Bush’s No Child Left Behind act may be the law of the land, but educational consultants say today’s students are being left back in greater numbers than in years past.

Schools have been holding children back — or retaining them, as the current vernacular calls it — to help them reach each grade level’s educational summit.

The effort is noble at face value. Why send a child ahead when he or she isn’t ready for the next set of challenges? However, the practice engenders a new round of problems that can linger for years and make the educational process even harder for the troubled student.

A report released this month by researchers at Boston College finds a “bulge” at the ninth-grade level — the increase in students at that grade level over those in the eighth grade — that has nearly tripled since the late 1960s. Researchers point to the rise of standardized exams, tougher course requirements and the ascendancy of accountability programs.

The National Association of School Psychologists reports that, during the past quarter-century, as many as 15 percent of U.S. students are held back each year and that 30 to 50 percent of all students in the country are retained at least once before ninth grade. Those rates are the highest among poor, minority and inner-city students, the Bethesda-based group reports.

A 1997 report from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health finds a lower percentage of retainees, saying about 21 percent of U.S. students will be held back at least once before ninth grade.

Carol Kochhar-Bryant, professor of special education at George Washington University, says the uptick in retention rates can be connected to education reforms demanding that strict standards be met.

The legacy of being held back isn’t easily overcome for some.

Mrs. Kochhar-Bryant says she recalls one report saying “the single best predicator of a student dropping out is being retained in one or more grades.”

Being left back has a profound impact on the student, she says.

“They’re stigmatized,” she says. “They look for alternate ways to cope, including drugs and breaking the law.”

Our educational system must do a better job of responding when a student shows clear signs of struggling, she says.

Too often, “what we see happening is teachers decide they need to be retained, but no additional supports are put in place,” she says.

School counselors should step in before the student is held back, she says, and other programs should try to solve the problem through after-school programs and summer sessions.

Mrs. Kochhar-Bryant says students fall back more often around the eighth and ninth grades, “a tumultuous time in their development,” she says.

Rhonda Hackett, a clinical psychologist and president and CEO of the educational consulting firm Nivek, says retained students typically have a very specific set of characteristics.

Such students are typically male and may have developmental problems that put them behind their peers. They often live in poverty and have parents with low educational levels. They also behave more aggressively in school and are more immature than their fellow students.

“Retention,” Ms. Hackett says, “does not help them be successful in any way, shape or form.”

“The key is to get to know what the problem is,” says Ms. Hackett, whose company is based in Lakewood, Colo. “Is it a learning disability? Is something going on at the home?”

Schools must do a better job of finding the problem by getting to know the individual child. The emotional stakes are too high, she says.

“Research proves that kids who are retained suffer a huge blow to their self-esteem,” she says.

Anne Young, principal of Clark Elementary School in Franklin, Ind., sees the wisdom in holding a struggling child back.

In Mrs. Young’s 21 years as principal, she has seen far more objective benefits to student retention than failures.

“We’re a small district. We can follow students,” she says. “There have been children who came back and said, ‘I’m so glad I repeated the grade.’”

She says two parents approached her this year to thank her for retaining their child.

“One little guy is on the honor roll,” she says.

Should a child struggle for a period of time, a teacher at Mrs. Young’s school will approach her with the situation. Then, the parents are notified as early as March, well before any decision is reached, to see if any extra lessons or attention can redirect the student, she says.

“Sometimes, that takes care of the problem, but not in the majority of cases,” she says.

Mrs. Young supports holding students back, if need be, but she doesn’t ignore the difficulties these children face.

“The first two weeks of the next school year will be, by far, the toughest [for them],” she says. “It’s equally unpleasant to not be academically successful and be the one who doesn’t achieve. The pain of your friends going on is fairly short-lived. The pain being on the bottom of the class is not.”

Lynn Fox, an associate professor with American University’s school of education, says neither retention nor social promotion even in light of poor grades is the answer at the moment.

“We need some kind of alternative strategy,” Ms. Fox says.

One proposal being discussed is grouping students together for their kindergarten-through-second-grade years for one extended, three-year block with the same teacher. That way, teachers get to know their students better, and if a student falls behind for any reason, the longer block of time is more forgiving without specific grade demarcations. They have time enough to catch up to their peers.

No matter the scenario, parents can take steps to help a child who must repeat a grade. Ms. Hackett says parents should put as much positive focus on how much their child is improving, rather than just carping on the poor grades.

“Look for every possible way the child succeeds, and call attention to it,” she says.

And don’t keep the subject off limits for discussion.

“Talk openly,” she says. “Acknowledge they’re feeling badly. Let them know it’s perfectly normal to feel that way.”

Mrs. Young recommends that parents role-play potential schoolyard scenarios so the children are prepared for any cruel comments.

“A lot of times, kids don’t know how to deal with it,” Mrs. Young says. Telling them to say something like, “My Mom and Dad think this is the best thing for me,” gives children a positive response to tell their peers.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide