Monday, January 24, 2011

Holding Students Back: Performance Results and Charter Schools

The question of how best to motivate our children to perform better has arisen again. The subject of “tiger moms” has become a major topic in the popular press. This topic represents an example of the extremes parents might go to in order to get results from their children.

A less often asked, but equally important question is to what lengths should a school, or school system, go to demand that a child deliver? One response is the threat that children who do not perform at the appropriate level will not be allowed to proceed to the next grade. This has traditionally been viewed as an extreme action that is not resorted to very often. Traditional school systems occasionally go through spasms of guilt or self-doubt and begin holding back significant numbers of students, but usually soon revert to normal practice and pass the problem students on. There are in fact data and arguments that would support that practice.

Sarah Garland has provided an interesting review of this practice in an article titled Repeat Performance in “The American Prospect.” The motivation for the article was mostly derived from the increasing number of charter schools that have been aggressive in the practice of holding students back. This is of interest both for the discussion of whether this is a worthwhile process and in order to determine if this practice has contributed to inflating performance measurements at some charter schools.

One should keep in mind the children and schools fall into at least three age groups: elementary, middle and high school. Each school and each age group faces a different set of issues when it comes to the question of holding a child back. In the early grades, a year difference in age can amount to 15-20% of a child’s lifetime. Considering that, and the differences in maturation rates between individuals, there is probably the best argument for holding students back when they are very young. Many parents choose to wait a year to start school rather than have their child be the youngest in the class. A school’s decision to hold a child back probably has the least impact on the child’s life at an early age.

In middle school and especially in high school there are social implications to being held back that could easily outweigh any beneficial academic effects. At these ages children have fairly well-defined personalities. One who is not motivated to perform better, or not capable of it, is not likely to improve much after being held back.

Garland provides us with results from several studies.
“Studies have found that in the long term, students who are held back in middle or high school learn less and are more likely to drop out.”

“Nick Montgomery, a senior research analyst at the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which conducted a long-term study of retention policies, says his team found that students who were held back after elementary school were more likely to drop out later on. In addition, Montgomery says, ‘students who repeat grades during middle school learn somewhat less than their [low-performing] peers who don't repeat’.”

“Retention brings other problems, too. Researchers have written about the psychological impact of separating students from their age group. It can be hard on the retained students, but also on teachers and younger students. They may have to contend with kids who are 15 and 16 years old in middle school and who may have behavioral problems in addition to their academic issues. At the same time, students who are retained are by nature already struggling and more likely to be disengaged with school. Being held back can increase their frustration by moving back the finishing line of graduation and, in the words of the Chicago Consortium researchers, making it seem less ‘worthwhile to continue’."
None of the quotes studies address the issue of holding back in the elementary grades. These citations would indicate that retention is, at best, a useless process. Of course one might be moved to ask if the practice itself at fault, or if the blame should go to the students, the parents, or to the schools themselves.

With respect to charter schools, Garland provides the following data.
“Although there are no national statistics tracking the percentage of students held back in charters, there is evidence that the number is large. Schools in charter hotspots like New York and Houston report retention rates as high as 23 percent, much higher than the district averages, which range from 1 percent to 4 percent. Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, which conducted a major national study on charter-school performance, says she's observed that charter schools tend to hold students back at higher rates than regular public schools. And a recent national study by Mathematica, a research firm based in Princeton, New Jersey, found that a sample of KIPP middle schools, the biggest charter network in the country, had a significantly higher retention rate than traditional public schools.”

“High retention rates can help to boost test scores at charter schools, at least in the short term. Students may do better on tests the second time, and retained students' scores are dropped from their cohort, so a class of students could improve its test scores over time because the lowest performers have been removed. And sometimes low performers simply leave the charter school when they find out they're going to be held back.”

“The charter schools defined as "good" -- at least as measured by standardized test scores -- tend to be those with high retention rates. But if, as Obama is demanding, a school's worth is measured by how many of its students are prepared for and go on to college, then it's much harder to tell how charters are doing. KIPP reports high college-going rates among its students, as do a handful of other charters. But at some charters, students who leave the school, as students who are retained often do, are not counted toward graduation rates. (KIPP leaders say they track even students who leave.) For charter schools nationally, there is virtually no data on long-term outcomes for students.”
It is vital that we understand which charter schools perform well and which do not. The purpose of charters is to experiment with methods, and then transfer the best methods back to the traditional schools where the majority of students reside. The various charter organizations seem to have a variety of approaches to deciding whether or not a student should be held back. This seems like an area in which some trial and error is appropriate, but the subsequent student performance must be monitored and understood. It seems way too early to make a judgment.

Garland is suggesting that the charter schools might be cooking the books in their favor. She does not actually accuse them of malfeasance, but she does plant the seed in the reader’s mind. It might be premature to go that far. However, she is absolutely correct to raise the efficacy of student retention up for public scrutiny.

If the good charter schools are demanding accountability from their students and imposing consequences, they should be given a chance to demonstrate that that can be made to work. Retention should be a precision tool, not a blunt one, and educators—and parents— will have to learn how to use it wisely. By all means let us experiment some. Let loose a bit of “tiger” into the system. The alternate view, based on Garland’s data, is that either the students are hopeless, or the schools are hopeless. Neither conclusion is very satisfying.


  1. Hey Rich,
    I am a student at UH studying education and I am working on a research presentation about whether or not children should be held back. Do you know of any good works or articles on the subject? I am specifically looking for information about abilities. Why should we hold students back in every subject if they fail in one? If a student makes A's in all subjects in math, why should we hold them back for the rest of their life because of it?

  2. Sorry, I don't have any additional references at this time.


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