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A Practical Tool for Looking at Grade Retention

“I want Johnny retained, and that’s that!”  Many of us in education have probably heard something similar from parents or a teacher.  Unfortunately, we sometimes jump into retention as the answer when a more targeted and studied response would offer better results.

At Alma Intermediate School, we use the Light’s Retention Scale (LRS) as a tool to gather evidence for decisions about placement that might change the path of a child’s future.   By completing the LRS, student age, learning difficulties, behavior, family characteristics, attendance, motivation, and other factors are part of the decision about retention.  I should give full disclosure here, and say that I think retention is an ineffective practice because of the lack of supporting research.  John Hattie’s work places it in the “reverse effects” range on effect size.  “This is one of the few areas in education where it is difficult to find any studies with a positive effect, and the few that do exist still hover close to a zero effect.” (Hattie, p 97)

Here’s just one short example in which we used the Light’s Retention Scale to gain evidence to aid in the decision making process.

A nine year old student (we’ll call her Julie) moved into our school district two summers ago.  The parents were unsure about Julie’s placement.  They produced a letter from her previous school stating Julie was being retained in 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 has 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.”

In my experience, grade-level skills are not so specific, clearly defined, or easy to measure.  Children do not always fit neatly into specific grade levels.  Even as an adult, 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.

Our first step was to work with the parents to fill out a LRS which takes about twenty minutes to complete.  After conferencing together with the parents and looking at the interpretation of scoring, we made the joint decision that Julie should be promoted to the third grade.

As a third grader, we saw Julie engaged in learning and enjoying strong relationships with teachers and her peers.  Teachers learned from their assessments that reading fluency was Julie’s main area of weakness.  Julie responded to focused fluency instruction and scored Proficient in both Literacy and Math.  She is now having a great fourth grade year.

I recently asked Julie how she thought things might have been different if she had repeated 2nd grade.  She said, “I think I would have been stuck in a rut that I couldn’t get out of.  Like I was stuck in 2nd grade but not knowing how to get to 3rd grade.”  What I saw before me as we visited was a child now hopeful about the future and excited about learning.

The Light’s Retention Scale does not make students successful.  Only good teaching can do that, but it does provide important evidence related to student placement when the possibility of retention is being considered.  It can also be used by educators as a defense against knee-jerk efforts to retain students who are experiencing learning challenges.  These challenges require the hard work of intense and prescriptive teaching rather than the simple repetition of the previous year’s instruction.   Committed and innovative teachers, equipped with relevant evidence, can move students through learning difficulties along multiple paths toward success.

John Hattie, Visible Learning, Routledge publisher, 2009
Light’s Retention Scale, Academic Therapy Publication, 2006

Written for the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators December Instructional Leader.


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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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