Testing and Grade Retention

What Is Retention?

Retention – or non-promotion – is the practice of holding a student in the same grade for a year or longer, often on the basis of scores on standardized tests. Lately, retention has been proposed by those who argue it is the best way to end “social promotion,” or automatically passing students to the next grade with their same-age peers. Retention, some argue, will prevent students from being passed without having learned the material they need, and therefore, graduating without necessary skills and knowledge.

While these arguments sound good in theory, retaining students can actually do more harm than good. Research has consistently shown that retention can result in long-term negative consequences to student achievement. At the same time, other approaches to ensuring student achievement work better than either “social promotion” or retention”. A long history of research on retention has shown:

  • Retention does not help students to catch up; student’s who are retained do no better or even worse on standardized tests and other measures
  • Students who are retained drop out more often than other students. Students that have been retained once have a 40% higher chance of dropping out and a 60% higher chance if retained twice. This happens largely because being overage in-grade damages students’ self confidence and leads them to disengage from school.
  • Retention rates are higher for African Americans, Latinos and children from low-income families. These students are also the most likely to have the least qualified teachers and other resources to help them succeed. Males are also retained more often than females.
  • Despite what the large body of research says, supporters of retention continue to argue that just the threat of retention will motivate students to work harder and learn more, while those that are retained will learn more after a second repetition. Again, research shows it doesn’t work this way. Repeating the same material twice does not result in sustained achievement from retained students, and in the long run, threats prove to be a very weak motivator.
  • Such policies also rest on an unproven assumption that when students aren’t learning it is students that are most to blame. Students do hold some responsibility, but teachers, school administrators, parents, and district and state officials all share in the responsibility to provide quality teaching, adequate resources, support and direction. Grade retention policies generally fail to address or improve these critical components to education.

Testing and Retention

Along with the call to end social promotion has been a growing emphasis on using standardized tests as the way to measure whether students are ready to be promoted. In many districts, students must now obtain a certain score on a standardized exam to be promoted at various grade levels in elementary, middle and high school. Proponents of this use of tests argue that setting a passing requirement will cause students to try harder to pass. But testing experts, researchers and many education practitioners agree that standardized tests should not be used as a stick to persuade students nor be the sole measurement of achievement. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Testmakers, researchers and other experts have repeatedly stated that important decisions about a student should not be based on a single test score. A one-shot test is not an accurate or complete measure of what a student is capable of and should not be used to make promotion decisions.
  • These experts recognize that every test has measurement error – the final score is not a precise measurement; if the score is not precise, then it should not be relied upon to make promotion decisions.
  • Some students do not perform well on tests even though they are capable of doing grade level classroom work and more.
  • Multiple choice and short-answer standardized tests don’t measure many skills that teachers and parents believe are important for students to learn, such as how well they analyze and solve problems, perform tasks, or work cooperatively in groups.
  • When consequences are tied solely to test scores, then teachers tend to teach the material that is on the test and to ignore other parts of the curriculum. For instance, using a lab in science or field trips in social studies may be reduced when only test scores count. In such an environment, students may only learn to repeat facts and figures, and not to understand or use the information they acquire.
  • The test scores don’t provide enough information about what is really happening in a school. A number or score does not provide adequate guidance to teachers and parents about how to improve teaching and learning.
  • Taking the same test several times reduces the dangers of incorrect labeling, but it does not eliminate the dangers. Multiple measures does not mean taking the same test several times.

What are the alternatives?

Both social promotion and retention do a grave disservice to students. Both fail to ensure that all students acquire the educational skills and knowledge they need to succeed in school and beyond. However, there are alternative methods that provide help to students that need it before they are passed AND prevent students from being harmed by retention. Some of these include:

  • Targeted supports and services that are available to students when they need them, which may include tutoring, after-school programs, Saturday classes, or other support services. These services need to be studied to ensure they are effective in enabling students at risk to catch up and that they are not merely test coaching programs.
  • Professional development for teachers to enable them to address a broader range of diverse student needs. Research shows that teachers are the single most important factor to student success.
  • Mixed age classrooms where students at different level work together on common problems.
  • Continuous relationships with teachers. Research has shown that students do better in school when their teachers know them well and when they work with the same teacher for two or more years.
  • Developing a variety of assessment skills and tools for classroom use (such as performances and portfolios) to help teachers and parents assess what students are learning, to find gaps, and address problems immediately. High quality classroom assessment used to help each child has been shown to be a powerful tool for improving student learning.

What can you do?

Everyone has a stake in providing students with the best possible education. There are steps you can take to help:

  • Let your principal, teachers and parent association know that you are concerned about retention, and tell them what the research says about it.
  • Alert your school or district to the limits and dangers of using standardized tests to make important decisions.
  • Ask the parents at your school to start a discussion about the alternatives to retention.
  • Ask the school about the support services available to students that are falling behind.
  • Ask about the professional development opportunities being offered to teachers at your school that will help them to teach and assess students better.
  • Tell teachers you would like to talk about using alternative assessment methods like portfolios.
  • Contact outside experts and community groups to provide your school with assistance and information on these topics.

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