Tests and Grade Retention




K-12 Testing

In a new national study that recommends tests not be used to make high stakes decisions about students, the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences has called into question the growing trend towards using test scores to make public school promotion decisions. The report also reinforces a large body of previous research showing that retention in grade is an unsuccessful remedy for low student achievement.

“In some places tests are being used inappropriately in making promotion and retention decisions,” the report explains, because “achieving a certain test score has become a necessary condition of grade to grade promotion.” The authors also point out that this use of tests contravenes both the standards for psychometrics and the “explicit recommendations of test publishers about using tests.”

These findings challenge a growing trend among schools and districts to institute strict promotion policies as a means to raise student achievement and end “social promotion,” or advancing students with their peers. Opponents of “social promotion” claim it has resulted in students being advanced before they have obtained the necessary skills and knowledge. New promotion regulations are seen as a way to compel students to work harder or be retained in grade to solidify skills.

Such measures may, however, lead districts astray in their efforts to improve student performance. “Neither social promotion nor retention alone is an effective treatment,” the NRC report states, and “grade retention policies typically have positive intentions but negative consequences.”

Such “negative consequences” have been documented by a large body of research showing that grade retention does not help students catch up nor improve their academic standing compared to similar students that are promoted. Retention also can decrease student confidence and contribute to greater behavioral difficulties. Students who repeat a grade are more likely to drop out, and this likelihood increases markedly after two retentions. One study found that children so feared retention, they ranked it third in a list of worst anxieties, topped only by blindness and death of a parent.

Given the poor track record of retention, many have questioned its continued use, a practice which the NRC report shows is occurring on a greater scale than currently assumed. Their study shows that retention rates have risen for 6 to 8 and 15 to 17 year olds during the last two decades, and that close to ten percent of all students are currently held back in school between these ages. One can also expect to find disproportionate concentrations of minority students, English-language learners and low-socioeconomic status students among those retained, a finding the NRC authors call “disturbing” given grade retention’s questionable educational value.

The NRC points out that it is a mistake to view the issue as an either-or choice between promotion and retention. The report recommends that schools should avoid such choices “in favor of strategies combining early intervention and effective remediation of learning problems.”

While the NRC report does not provide evidence on the effectiveness of various remedies, other studies have highlighted effective alternatives for providing support to students who are falling behind while avoiding the pitfalls found with grade repetition. These include: 1) increased and enhanced professional development to help teachers meet standards; 2) school restructuring and two year student-teacher relationships; 3) targeted and timely supports to students available during the school day; and, 4) use of a variety of ongoing classroom assessments that provide information to help guide teaching. Some districts have offered after-school or summer programs to provide additional learning time. Such programs are most effective when linked to the work students are doing in their classrooms and when supports are targeted to address individual student difficulties.

While the effectiveness of any alternative “depends on the quality of the instruction that students received,” reports the NRC committee, they conclude that all decisions regarding retention or promotion should be supported by additional evidence. Test scores should always be “buttressed by other relevant information about the student’s knowledge and skills, such as grades, teacher recommendation and extenuating circumstances.” In addition, such decisions should be accompanied by data collection on key indicators “that should tell us whether the educational consequences of particular decisions are educationally beneficial for students.” Critics of retention charge that without extra support for students, such plans are doomed to repeat the failures of the past. The report also notes that Ain the current political environment…..such remediation may be neglected once higher promotion standards have been imposed.” If this happens, statistical evidence will be essential to expose the effects of grade retention and test misuse.

–For information on alternatives, see Linda Darling-Hammond, Alternatives to Grade Retention, in The School Administrator, August 1998.