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What We Do Matters – Thoughts on Retention

Report card from my elementary school years. Six-week grading periods.

Report card from my elementary school years. Six-week grading periods.

What we do as educators matters and may change the trajectory of a child’s life long-term.  I know I’m stating the obvious but, as this story illustrates, our actions have significant consequences on children.

A student moved into Alma last summer.  The parents were unsure where their child should attend since she was being retained.  They produced a letter from the elementary principal in another town and school district (which will remain nameless).  The letter said the child was being retained in the 2nd grade because she had “not mastered the skills necessary to move on to the next grade level.”  The letter went on to say, “Once a child is moved on to the next grade level, he or she never again has the chance to ‘go back’ and learn the skills of the previous grade.”  This statement made me angry.  Since when did grade-level skills become so specific, clearly defined, and easy to measure?   Since when did children become consistently formed cogs that fit so tightly into specific grade levels in our schools?  I’m continually “going back” and relearning things.   Sometimes I learn things I missed or that became relevant to me later in life.  The same thing happens with children and with much more fluidity.

I resisted the urge to scream “educational malpractice” after reading the principal’s letter and looked for evidence of the need for retention.  I should give full disclosure here and say that I don’t believe repeating a grade is good practice in education.  One reason I don’t care for this practice is that I have found no creditable research that supports retention.  But, we looked at the evidence on this child.

  • Attendance in second grade…pretty good.
  • Grades in second grade….All As and Bs with one C.
  • Light’s Retention Scale results….none had been done.
  • Student attitude about retention….Neither the child nor the parents had been asked about this.
  • Test scores from spring of second grade…. From 62nd to 81st percentile in various sub-tests in Math.  Lower in reading with scores below the 40th percentile with higher scores being in reading comprehension.  This would register concern about fluency skills and developmental delays which might be recovered with intervention and good teaching.

After having the parents complete a Light’s Retention Scale and consulting together about the results, we decided she should not be retained.

Since August we’ve seen this child engage in learning and enjoy strong relationships with teachers and her peers in our third grade.  She is progressing at a good rate based on all assessment criteria.

How different might her life have been if she’d gone through another year of second grade?  I think we avoided what would have been a long and negative trajectory because we made thoughtful decisions about this child and placed her with wonderful, engaging teachers.  What we do matters.


1 Comment

  1. Connie Stielow says:

    Retaining students leads many to drop out of high school as soon as they reach 18. I had first graders who already felt like failures when they had to repeat kindergarten. Retention should be the very last resort. Many are late bloomers and will be at grade level if given intervention without retention.

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I'm Jim Warnock, Principal at Alma Intermediate School. I enjoy learning and sharing with others. If you like the outdoors, check out my other blog: ozarkmountainhiker.com

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