When Alberto Cortes was held back in fourth grade because of low math skills, he thought his world had come to an end.
“The first day of going back to fourth grade, I see all my friends with new teachers there in fifth grade,” Cortes said. “I started crying because I had to do fourth grade again and they got to go to middle school.”
At first the humiliation and embarrassment of retention motivated Cortes to try hard in his classes. But by seventh grade, he was smoking and doing graffiti to impress kids and shed his reputation as the “dumb” older kid.
When he was kicked out of his middle school, in the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles, Cortes saw a chance to solve the problem. At the new school to which he was assigned, he asked to jump ahead a year, to eighth grade, so he could join the other kids his age. Because of his age, school administrators agreed. But by the time he got to high school — after only a couple months in eighth grade — Cortes was still behind academically. After a few months, he dropped out.
Cortes’s experience — being retained because of his grades and later promoted despite them — is indicative of the confusion in districts across the country about how best to deal with struggling students. Research shows that often retention can have negative effects on students. Nevertheless, a growing chorus of critics over the past two decades, including President Obama, have urged schools to end “social promotion,” the practice of passing failing students onto the next grade.
“This notion that we should just graduate kids because they’ve reached a certain age and we don’t want to embarrass them, despite the fact that they may not be able to read, that is a disservice to students,” Obama said in 2010.
This logic has led 15 states and the District of Columbia to adopt policies requiring third-grade reading proficiency before a student can be promoted. Large urban districts, like New York City and Chicago, have also experimented with ending social promotion.
But despite promises and new policies meant to hold more students back until they’ve mastered grade-level material, a University of Minnesota study currently under peer review found that student retention is actually on the decline. Retention rates are not tracked annually on a national level and most data that exists is collected through surveys, so the researchers used grade level enrollment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to estimate that retention rates hovered around 2.7 percent from 1995 to 2005. After that, the number of students held back actually began to decline, hitting 1.5 percent in 2009.
John Robert Warren, one of the authors of the paper, said he doesn’t know why retention rates have declined, but is doing research to investigate the reasons.
“People are kind of reluctant to hold a kid back,” said Arzie Galvez, LAUSD district administrative coordinator.
California, which passed a 1998 law meant to reduce the promotion of students like Cortes, is an example of why the hype over banning social promotion hasn’t matched the reality in classrooms.
California education code states that students who don’t meet grade standards — as measured by state standardized tests at promotion “gates” in elementary and middle schools — must repeat the grade. Those gates are at second, third, and fourth grades and at the completion of middle school in eighth grade. But there’s a catch, which exists in nearly all state retention laws: A student can be promoted if the teacher decides retention isn’t appropriate for that child. That is how the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation’s second-largest school district, where Cortes attended school, has been promoting failing students.
“People are kind of reluctant to hold a kid back,” said Arzie Galvez, a LAUSD district administrative coordinator who oversaw a committee of teachers and administrators convened in 2011 to study social promotion. “If you survey people they’ll say social promotion is wrong but when the rubber meets the road a lot of staff members are reluctant to (retain students).”
Retention rates in the district, much higher than Warren’s estimates of national averages, sit around 7.5 percent, according to Galvez. The district found, though, that promoting struggling students and letting them fend for themselves didn’t work either. While the LAUSD school board has not eliminated the possibility of a true ban on social promotion, in the meantime it is beefing up efforts to increase the number of interventions available for students passed along based on age.
At first, Cortes saw being so easily moved to eighth and then ninth grade as a positive. “I was happy because I didn’t do a year of school,” he said. “I wasn’t worried about grades.”
But things unraveled quickly at San Fernando High School, when he received no additional help or support and the work became challenging. To make matters worse, his teachers didn’t seem to care that he was behind, Cortes said.
LAUSD is now looking to promote struggling students with their class — so they don’t feel stigmatized, as Cortes did — while offering more attention when they move to the next grade.
“What we found is that if you (promote a student), you also needed to provide support, additional academic support, so that you could fill in those gaps,” Galvez said of the district’s renewed focus on intervening when students aren’t performing at grade level. “Social promotion in and of itself, it’s not bad.”
As they have been able to do for years, district teachers may recommend a student move forward and tap into intervention programs: The student may take double courses in a challenging subject, receive tutoring or work with counselors or aides.
The intervention program has many arms, says Javier Sandoval, an intervention administrator who retired from the district in June. He said the various parts of the program — intervention courses, summer school, credit recovery offerings, after-school tutoring — are all funded differently depending on the schools.
At the high school level, for instance, the district is funding a $4.1 million program, the Academic Accelerated Literacy program, which provides smaller classes in challenging subjects for failing students during the school day. LAUSD also spent $21.5 million this year to bolster its summer school intervention program –Beyond the Bell — that served more than 54,800 students in kindergarten to 12th grade, a huge increase from 6,200 last year, according to Janet Kiddoo, who replaced Sandoval as the program’s intervention specialist.
“The philosophy here in the district has been to pass the money on to the schools so that they can do their own programs,” Sandoval said. “We have much more local control and local oversight over what intervention programs are being provided.”
Some research supports LAUSD’s methods. Studies have suggested that students held back can be victims of bullying; they also may feel developmentally out of place or psychologically discouraged and often perform worse than their socially-promoted peers. Additional studies show that when kids are held back, academic performance even suffers among the student’s classmates because of increased in disciplinary problems that take time and attention away from learning.
Russ Rumberger, professor of education at the University of California Santa Barbara, supports the strategies LAUSD is adopting. “The reason I think retention isn’t necessarily a very helpful practice is that I think the typical situation is to simply repeat a grade and not necessarily address the reasons a kid was failing in the first place,” he said. “The idea is to give them the extra interventions in the grade level that they are in, such that they are not going to be retained.”
But Marcus Winters, a professor of education at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, is hoping his research over the last decade will change people’s minds about retention. He believes that holding students back while also providing interventions can have a much more positive effect than sending them on to the next grade, even with extra help.
Winters looked at retained students in Florida after a retention law was instituted in 2003. Winters narrowed the pool of students to those within a small margin both above and below the cutoff for retention, which he said was basically the difference of one or two problems on the state standardized test.
Students below the cutoff were retained and given extra support during the following year, while students above were moved on to the next grade.
“We found that the kids who received this retention and remediation treatment in third grade, there’s big positive immediate effect in those first couple of years,” Winters said. “That effect tended to fade a little bit over time, but even by the time they were in the seventh grade there was still a pretty large — not only statistically significant but really meaningful — positive effect from receiving that treatment in third grade.”
Winters is still waiting on graduation data, but said he’s optimistic about the results.
“The high-quality research that has happened over the last couple of years has really pointed us in the direction that (retention) might be a productive policy,” he said.
Winters said most of the research showing retention has a negative effect on students was not as rigorous as more recent studies. He pointed to a2009 study by Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis that looked at 22 studies on grade retention and found that well-designed research suggests that holding students back has no effect on student achievement.
Though researchers, such as Winters, use the study to cast doubts on the negative effects of retention, it fails to actually support the practice. The study included a caveat: “Given the expense of grade retention and the emotional toil (sic) retention exacts on students, a finding of ‘no significant difference’ for retention on achievement calls into question the educational benefits of grade retention policies.”
And even Florida — where retention rates jumped nearly a third in the 2002-2003 school year and which has been recognized nationally for its crackdown on social promotion — saw retention rates fall not long after social promotion was supposed to end. Within five years, the percentage of students held back had dropped back down to 2001-2002 levels and continued to decrease steadily.
Winters says though it’s difficult to prove, he believes declining retention rates could be a result of the retention policy having a motivating effect on teachers and students.
“We think that people might see that line in the sand and want to get over it before they fall behind it,” Winters said. “If you have this line in third grade, then it might be the case that schools respond to that … by giving a lot more effort to students and maybe moving the best teachers in or maybe a more motivated focus on reading before the kids get to the third grade in the first place and face the probability of being retained.”
Nevertheless, several large urban districts that had once routinely kept kids back are now rethinking their retention policies. New York mayor Bill de Blasio has argued that there should be more variables involved in student promotion than just standardized tests. In Chicago, the district slowly has been backing away from its splashy 1996 ban on social promotions. According to a 2004 report by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, Chicago’s retention rates dropped steadily after 1996 despite few gains in student performance; in 2000 the district increased the range at which a student could be promoted and increased waiver rates, allowing more students to pass through the promotional gates at third, sixth and eighth grade.
“Every couple of years there’s change in terms of what the threshold is and what it’s based on,” said Elaine Allensworth, a director with the research group.
Allensworth said there’s a lot of confusion over what’s actually best for students. She said politicians vilify social promotion without considering the consequences of holding students back, which include social and emotional repercussions for students and decreases in the level of classroom instruction for the entire class.
“I think people just don’t think it through, they’re looking for a very simplistic solution to a problem and not thinking about how that fits into the whole system,” Allensworth said.
Los Angeles is using standardized tests and course assessments to monitor students in the intervention program. When asked to assess the success of the interventions, Galvez cited district reports on standardized test scores as evidence of improvement, although he acknowledged that district data shows test scores had been climbing before LAUSD beefed up the intervention program. State scores have generally been rising as well.
“Success is measured by the number of students who received intervention and showed improvement,” Galvez said. “Analysis of district data indicate that the district intervention efforts, along with efforts to ensure high-quality (teaching) in math and reading, have impacted positively student achievement.”
For Alberto Cortes, now 16, the solution was not simply to repeat a grade, but to find mentors and teachers who would take time with him and let him learn things his way — in a flexible environment where he could learn at his own pace.
A few months after he dropped out of high school, Cortes’ mother enrolled him in a Los Angeles County Office of Education alternative education program, which allowed him to meet one-on-one with a teacher at the El Nido Family Centers near his home.
He is now caught up and plans to graduate within the next year and a half. Cortes, the baby of the family, will be the first of his mother’s three children to graduate from high school.
“I do want to get at least my bachelor’s and my master’s,” Cortes said. “I want to do something in the medical business. But at (the time I dropped out) I always thought that I was going to end up in jail someday.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet at Teachers College, Columbia University.