Alternatives to Social Promotion and Grade Retention
In 1998, the U.S. Secretary of Education urged school districts to find alternatives to social promotion and retention. The White House Press Office stated that promoting unprepared students and retaining students in the same grade are not appropriate responses to low student achievement because these practices presume that academic failure is unavoidable and acceptable. Instead, they recommended that schools should implement research-based practices that help students meet standards the first time they are exposed to them (NWREL, 1999).
As schools create plans to prevent school failure, two key points should be emphasized. Schools must
- be proactive and attempt to prevent failure, and
- identify at-risk children as soon as possible and immediately take action to implement best practices.
One of the best means to ensure student success is to provide a program that strives to prevent school failure and provides intervention at the first indication of a problem (USDOE, 1999). Yet all too often, intervention is provided too late to be truly effective. Often schools step in to help children after an academic problem has escalated out of control, rather than identifying and providing assistance in preschool, kindergarten, or first grade. Many children who enter school with insufficient skills, especially those two or more years behind their peers, are never able to meet grade-level standards and fall further and further behind their peers. A longitudinal study with about 800 students found that children retained in elementary or middle school were those who were having significant problems in first grade or had insufficient skills upon entering school (Alexander et al., 1994). It is incumbent on schools to identify and provide remediation with proven practices early in a child's school career.
The following research-based strategies have proved to be effective in preventing school failure and in curtailing potential academic failure. Each should be considered in a total plan to reduce or eliminate grade retention and social promotion.
- Provide high-quality preschool programs, especially for children at greatest risk for academic failure due largely to starting "way behind" in kindergarten.
A number of longitudinal research studies have demonstrated that early intervention programs can provide immediate and long-term benefits for children at risk for failure and special education placement. Programs that are intensive and individualized are more likely to improve the developmental outcomes for children (Ramey & Ramey, 1999).
Two long-term research studies demonstrate the efficacy of early intervention programs for children at greatest risk. The Abecedarian Project studied the potential benefits of early childhood education for economically disadvantaged children. It provided intensive, individualized full-day preschool education five days a week for children from six weeks to five years of age. Long-term findings from this study revealed participating children scored higher on reading and math tests through age 15 and had lower rates of special education placement and grade retention (Campbell & Ramey, 1995). At age 21, these children continued to have higher cognitive test scores and higher academic achievement in both reading and math. These individuals were more likely to postpone parenthood until their young adult years. In addition, they were more likely to attend a four-year college (Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, 1999).
The Perry Preschool Project focused on three- and four-year-old children with low IQ scores and tracked these children to age 27. It was found they were less likely to be placed in special education, had fewer grade retentions, attained greater academic achievement, had lower teen pregnancy rates, and had lower juvenile crime rates (Schweinhart, Barnes, Weikart, Barnett, & Epstein, 1993). A cost-benefit analysis completed in 1985 showed that for every dollar invested in this early intervention program, seven dollars were saved in the costs associated with additional or special schooling, juvenile crime, and welfare (Barnett, 1985).
- Provide teachers with intensive, quality professional development opportunities focused on (a) raising student achievement and (b) meeting the diverse needs of struggling students.
One of the most effective remedies for school failure is skillful teaching. Skillful teachers are those who know their students' strengths and needs, are familiar with and utilize a wide range of successful teaching strategies, and continuously adapt strategies to meet their students' needs. Not surprisingly, studies conducted in several states showed that good teaching makes a positive difference in academic performance that is sustained over time (Education Trust, 1998). Specifically, a Tennessee study showed that students who have highly effective teachers for three straight years score about 50 percentile points higher than those who had ineffective teachers for three years (Sanders & Rivers, 1996). A 1991 study involving more than 900 Texas school districts shows, after controlling for socioeconomic status of students, that teacher qualifications and expertise accounted for more than 40 percent of the difference in student academic achievement (Ferguson, 1991). These studies provide convincing evidence that teacher expertise is a significant predictor of student academic success.
Such expertise and knowledge typically do not come naturally. "One-shot" workshops are the most frequently used format for professional development and have consistently been shown to be highly ineffective (Full an & Stiegelbauer, 1991). Professional development opportunities that are intensive and sustained over time are more likely to produce skillful teachers. Research findings and practices of exemplary schools show that effective professional development practices (a) reflect best research and practices in teaching, (b) engage teachers in continuous study, (c) create networks for them to plan collaboratively, (d) encourage professional inquiry and exchange, and (e) require substantial time and resources (Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1997). Well-prepared teachers who are engaged in continuous, high-quality professional development opportunities can prevent student failure.
- Provide research-based intervention strategies that meet the individual needs of struggling students.
The U.S. Department of Education (1999) recommends tl1at schools utilize different approaches if students are not responding to traditional methods. A number of intervention strategies have proved to be successful in remediating academic difficulties:
a. Looping—Looping is a practice by which the teacher works with the same group of children for more than one year. Looping supports academic success because the teacher develops long-term relationships with students. Because teachers spend less instructional time becoming acquainted with students and their needs, they are able to focus more of their time on instruction (U.S. Department of Education, 1999; Yang, 1997).
b. Class size reduction—A large four-year study conducted in Tennessee evaluated the effect of small class size on student performance in kindergarten through third grade. This study showed that classes with 13 to 17 students made significantly greater gains than classes with 21 to 25 students, with and without a classroom aide. The small class size advantage was evident in all four grades, but especially in kindergarten and first grades (Word et al., 1990).
c. One-on-One Tutoring—One-on-one tutoring has consistently been highly effective in preventing early reading failure. A synthesis of research studies that meet stringent criteria found that one-on-one instruction by adults produced large educationally significant gains. In addition, the use of certified teachers, compared with paraprofessionals, produced significantly larger educational gains. The studies that evaluated the lasting effects of one-on-one tutoring during the early grades found that the initial positive effects continued to grow into second and third grades (Wasik & Slavin, 1994).
d. Extended Learning Time—Providing extra time after school or in the summer in and of itself is not enough to make a difference in the lives of struggling students (Karweit, 1989). Programs that have the greatest likelihood of improving student achievement are after-school and summer programs that build on the regular curriculum and address students' specific needs. The use of appropriate techniques and the quality of teacher instruction are also critical elements in producing positive gains, especially for children at risk (Leinhardt & Pallay, 1989).
- Actively address the social needs and provide social support as well as academic assistance for struggling students.
Young people who are struggling academically need not only effective intervention strategies focused on academic deficiencies, they also need the support that comes from teachers, peers, family, and other interested individuals. Personal relationships, or social support, motivates students to learn, builds confidence that academic success is possible, and instills a sense of trust and safety that allows them to be risk takers and "bounce back" when they experience failure (Lee, Smith, Perry, & Smylie, 1999; Wehlage, Rutter, Smith, Lesko, & Fernandez, 1999).
One study with more than 28,000 sixth and eighth graders showed that students who experienced a strong emphasis on academic success and had high social support achieved significantly higher levels than students who experienced only a strong emphasis on academic standards (Lee et al., 1999). An in-depth study of 14 schools showed that the provision of social support is critical in preventing school failure and school dropout (Wehlage et al., 1989). This social support is found in schools in which personnel actively create positive and respectful relationships with students and address students' personal problems through communication and direct support. It is likely that training on how to provide social support to students is needed.
- Develop rigorous, specific, grade-by-grade standards that provide direction for curriculum development and help teachers assess individual learning needs.
Grade standards provide multiple benefits. Overall, standards provide a means for teachers, parents, and the community at large to judge adequate student performance consistently. This consistency will help ensure that teachers from school to school are judging performance by the same criteria. Standards also serve as the foundation for curriculum development and student assessment, and can demonstrate the need for additional educational services. They give parents and students an overview of the academic focus and expectations (AFr, 1997; NASBE, 1999). A study with more than 28,000 students showed that conformity to academic standards produces greater academic gains (Lee et al., 1999).
Grade standards should encompass more than simply designating a standardized test score as an indicator for student achievement. The AFT (1997) recommends a number of criteria when developing or critiquing existing standards.
They believe standards should be based on the core disciplines, that they reflect the essential components of the academic curriculum, and that they be rigorous and comparable with standards of other high-achieving countries. In addition, they believe standards should delineate different levels of student performance and include content and performance standards.
- Involve parents as team members in improving student performance.
Teachers should be prepared and willing to work jointly with parents on supporting students' educational progress. Studies have shown that regardless of parental income, level of education, or work status, it is the schools' efforts and the teachers' practices that determine the success of parent involvement programs (Epstein, 1988; Funkhouser & Gonzales, 1997; USDOE, 1997). Parents need teachers to provide direction. In addition, excellent parent involvement programs include teacher training as an essential component to ensure that teachers are adequately prepared to support parent involvement activities (Decker, Gregg, & Decker, 1996; Shartrand, Weiss, Kreider, & Lopez, 1997). Parents are more likely to be involved when schools welcome parents, make it easy for them to be involved, and when parents and teachers respect each other (NCES, 1999a).
- Continue to monitor and provide assistance on an "as-needed" basis to students who graduate from intervention programs.
Unfortunately, numerous studies have shown that the academic gains made in most intervention programs for at-risk students fade or "wash out" over time (Alexander et al., 1994; Gredler, 1984; Holmes, 1989; Mantizicopoulos & Morrison, 1992; Meisels, 1992; Nason, 1991; Reynolds et al., 1997; Shepard & Smith, 1986, 1989). Continuing intervention is needed to address new and different challenges that children face at various points in their school career (Karweit, 1994). Therefore, it is essential that schools continue to monitor children who have participated in intervention programs and provide assistance if problems reoccur. This assistance should come as soon as possible to prevent accelerated deterioration of academic performance.
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