- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2001

Darion Fleming learned a lot in kindergarten. The Arlington boy liked working with letters and numbers, singing songs and cooperating with his classmates.

But when the time came to discuss Darion's future, the teachers at the private school he attended told his parents, Karen Beard and Bruce Fleming (no relation to this reporter), that the child might benefit from spending another year in the same grade.

His parents agreed.

"What I noticed was the emotional maturity," his mother says. "I felt it was lacking at that point." Darion's late birthday figured into the equation, too: He was younger than most of the other students in his class.

"He was very frustrated," Ms. Beard says. "The other kids were picking up certain skills faster than he was."

Darion is 8 now, and his parents say that grade retention was a good course of action for their child.

"For him although it's always hard to tell on this this was a good decision," Ms. Beard says.

As many as 15 percent of all American children repeat a grade each year, according to the National Association of School Psychologists' position paper on retention.

Educators seem to plant their feet firmly on either side of the retention fence. While some cite research that suggests that repeating a grade does not ultimately help children catch up, others say social promotion which moves children up the grade ladder regardless of performance only frustrates an already ill-served or beleaguered learner.

All policies surrounding promotion and retention are set in compliance with state code, and the regulations are developed by the state board of education, says Charles Pyle, public information manager for the Virginia Board of Education. Individual responsibility rests with school principals, and flat veto power rarely is afforded parents.

But as in most matters concerning their children, parents play a key part in the decision-making process when retention is suggested as an intervention. Skilled parent advocates will conduct their own research, ask the hard questions of the appropriate professionals, and learn their rights and benefits within the school system.

Workable solutions

Teachers and administrators usually recommend grade retention based on a combination of factors. A child might be having difficulty mastering the grade-level curriculum, for example. Also, the child may have produced failing scores on standards of learning tests, may be identified as someone who could benefit from an extra year "to grow," or even may have missed too many days of school.

There is no shortage of educators and policy-makers to debate the practice of retention. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), for example, has looked closely at the issue for several years.

The NASP doesn't mince words. Its policy paper on retention states, in part:

"Through many years of research, the practice of retaining children in grade has been shown to be ineffective in meeting the needs of children who are academically delayed. Initial achievement gains may occur during the retention year, but the consistent trend … is that achievement gains decline within 2-3 years of retention."

Peg Dawson, a former school psychologist and a past president of NASP, agrees.

"The masses of studies show that there is no benefit to holding children back," she says. "They don't do better academically, and they don't do better in self-esteem."

But retention is not a hard science.

"No one is denying that there may be a child out there now and then who might be helped by repeating a grade," Ms. Dawson says. "The problem is, we have no way to predict who that child is."

The most worrisome research, she says, looks at the long-term effects.

"Children are far more likely to feel alienated and disconnected in high school," she says. "You may have solved a temporary problem in first or second grade, but what about in high school? Being old for a grade puts you at much greater risk for risky adolescent behaviors."

Judy Madden, Montgomery County Public Schools supervisor of guidance, also says research does not support retention as an effective intervention. Ms. Madden has served as a classroom teacher, a school counselor, an elementary counselor specialist and a pupil personnel worker ("sort of like a social worker," she says) for a total of 29 years in education.

"Although no teacher makes the suggestion for retention out of anything but wanting the child to succeed, not everyone is familiar with the long-term research, perhaps," she says.

"Merely repeating the same instructional strategies and curriculum [via retention] isn't looking at what's causing the problem. Doing what you've always done is likely to get the same results you've always gotten. Retention doesn't answer that question of why the child is not succeeding," Ms. Madden says.

Jim Grant takes a different approach to the subject of retention, or "wrong grade placement," as the New Hampshire educator sometimes calls it.

A former principal who also taught for more than 20 years, Mr. Grant has served for 25 years as executive director of Staff Development for Educators, a company that provides professional-development resources to teachers. He fills a busy lecture calendar, traveling to speak before state and national education associations.

Mr. Grant's passion about the topic of retention is evident: He has written several books on the subject and regularly discusses it during his presentations.

"It's politically incorrect to surface the topic of wrong grade placement," he says. "It brings to light that the school system we're using is 154 years old and antiquated. The curriculum we buy is rigidly age-grade specific, to be completed in 36 weeks. Some kids just can't do it in that time frame."

Mr. Grant says he is a big believer in parental instinct as a factor in deciding if a child should spend another year in the same grade.

"You were there when your baby was born. Every decision you have made has been done on intuition and a sense of timing," he says. "As soon as your baby turns 60 months old, you trust her to experts. Every year she gets a wax candle, and you move her to the next grade whether or not she can do the work."

In addition, Mr. Grant says, "We are doing first-, second- and third-grade work in kindergarten now. Kindergarten has turned into a boot camp for children. The by-product of this is kids who are stressed, depressed and, of course, the big one is that many are below grade level. When we put kids in a curriculum in which they cannot comfortably succeed, we create discouraged learners."

Mr. Grant emphasizes that he would never recommend retention for a child based strictly on academics.

"I just wouldn't do it," he says. "We have to look at the whole child," he says.

Dick Dunning, principal at South Meadow Middle School in Peterborough, N.H., also says he would question the value of retention based solely on academic performance.

"For me, the decision really is based around the social and emotional pieces," he says.

Mr. Dunning has spent 28 years in education 13 years as a teaching principal.

"I like to look at retention as giving kids more time," he says. "It has to do with being not necessarily ready. I think for those kids who are socially and emotionally young, it makes a lot of sense."

He says he has retained two students during his professional tenure. One is now a doctor of veterinary medicine. The other appears to be a happy, well-adjusted adult, too.

The big decision

Parents should be involved in early planning when retention is considered, says Meg Tuccillo, director of administrative services for Arlington County Schools. The topic should be broached no later than the spring parent-teacher conference.

And once concerns have been aired, parents should request a meeting with the teacher and other involved educators, says Marilou Hyson, associate executive director for professional development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

"Have [the teacher] tell you the reasons and think of what the choices are in that school," she says. "If my child stays in this grade, what will happen, besides going over the same material, to help my child be more successful? If my child does get promoted but is still having trouble with reading, for example, what kind of help will he get next year?"

Ms. Madden adds to the list of suggestions.

"If I were a parent, I would familiarize myself with the research," she says. "Parents need to be well-informed. Review the literature and really try to use it in your decision making. Or you can ask the school to help. The parent has to be very engaged in the conversation."

Ms. Madden says she also would look at the child's performance in all aspects of the school progress including music, art and physical education and not just focus on one narrow curricular area.

"Parents know their children," she says. "When they hear that their child acts a certain way in school but you are not seeing those behaviors at home, a parent needs to ask, 'What can we do to bring those two behavioral worlds together?' "

Mr. Grant says he also would ask the teacher to be specific about her rationale. "Is it a late birth date? Emotionally fragile? Socially, [the child] has no one to play with? Can do the work but at great social and emotional expense? If my child takes another year to finish the grade, will it help her be on target?"

Mr. Dunning says that parents need to determine how the next year in the same grade will be different for their child.

"I actually even might be an advocate to keep the same teacher," he says. "But what aspects of the program would look different?"

Parents also can consider requesting a student-study meeting, says Ms. Tuccillo, which is an opportunity for the teacher, school specialists and administrators to gauge and discuss the abilities and best interests of the child.

If a committee then recommends testing as a result of those discussions, another meeting could be convened to analyze the results of that testing. At that point, the committee might consider whether special-education services are appropriate for that child.

Parents who ultimately disagree with a retention can contest it, says Michael Carr, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, based in Reston.

"As parents, the first thing you should do [in a disputed case] is to ask the teachers and principal what type of documentation they have to support their decision," he says. "At the same time, find out what the school district's and the state's policies are for holding a child back."

At this point, if parents still believe it is appropriate for their child to move on to the next grade, they might want to take their case to the school district office, which then may elect to conduct a review, Mr. Carr says.

"These parents better cover themselves that this student really has attained at the level they need to move forward," he says. "Be realistic. However, there is nothing wrong with making sure the professional educators are doing what they should to make the right decision."

Doing the right thing

All parents want the magic answer. The bottom line, says Ms. Hyson, is that it is impossible to absolutely foretell whether retention will be a successful intervention for an individual child.

San Diego mother Michelle Burges says she grappled for years with her feelings that her son Ryan, now 14, should spend an additional year in elementary school. She says she and her husband warily had watched him struggle with grade-level material since he entered kindergarten.

The couple had tutored their son and had discussion after discussion with his teachers about his progress. Ryan, however, always had managed to earn passing grades, says Ms. Burges, and his teachers never had seriously entertained his parents' queries about grade retention.

Finally, near the end of Ryan's fifth-grade year, his father accepted a new job in Northern California.

"This was my perfect chance" to have Ryan repeat a grade, Ms. Burges says. "For Ryan's sake, I thought it would be easier if the other kids didn't know."

Ryan's teachers and administrators did not support his parents' request, however. Before the family moved, she and her husband were asked to sign documents admitting the grade retention would commence at Ryan's new school against the advice of their son's old school teachers and administrators, Ms. Burges says.

The Burgeses complied, and Ryan repeated the fifth grade in his new town. The family since has returned to San Diego.

Ms. Burges says that allowing Ryan to repeat a grade gave him a chance to catch his breath, "so he didn't have to be so overwhelmed. He got to look at the material a second time and move on in a more confident way."

After all, adds Mr. Grant, "childhood is a journey, not a race."

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