By Annette Kingsbury
School psychologist Anne Kocot remembers vividly the teenage girl who was referred to her after being held back in school for the second time.
"They felt she hadn't tried hard enough," said Kocot, who did her master's thesis on retention at Central Michigan University and works in the Montague School District in Michigan.
It turned out the child was eligible for special education, but no one had seen fit to test her earlier in her life. She ended up dropping out of school rather than be a 16-year-old seventh-grader.
Ask most educators, and they'll tell you that holding children back at the end of the school year, a practice known as retention, doesn't work.
But ask many political leaders these days and they'll tell you social promotion, that is, moving children to the next grade when they don't measure up academically, is wrong. The general public seems to support them, too -- at least when it applies to other people's children. Four states have actually banned the practice.
But the National Education Goals Panel's report "Ready Schools," states that retention fails to solve a child's academic problems and even creates new ones.
This difference of opinion, according to Anne Robertson, coordinator for the National Parent Information Network, is "one of the clearest examples of poor communication between research and practice."
The question then for parents is when faced with making a decision for their own child, how do they know who is right?
First of all, the news that a school plans to retain a child should never come as a surprise to parents. Communication between the school and the parent should begin at the first sign of problems. Both sides are responsible for making sure that communication occurs.
"There ought to have been a lot of signs along the way," said Richard Brozovich, Ph.D, a licensed psychologist with Oakland Schools. "One of the worst things you can do to a parent is blind-side them."
Even so, too often educators reach for the easy solution. "The idea, 'Well, we'll just hold him back' is still widely used, even in the most affluent districts," he said. "It's used as a substitute to finding individual solutions for a student."
Kocot agrees. She said that though parents and teachers may agree retention is not a good idea, it's one of the first things they grasp at. As for politicians, "I think they want a simple solution to a very complex problem," she said.
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that schools should have alternatives available for students who are not succeeding in the classroom. Options like summer school and tutoring have far greater benefits than retention and are ultimately less costly, according to the National Association of School Psychologists.
That's why the Michigan Department of Education will distribute $5 million in grant money this summer to schools that implement summer literacy programs. Priority will go to those schools who follow proven models researched during a 1998 pilot summer reading program.
Other districts, like Chicago, which has received a lot of attention recently for putting an end to social promotion, have required some students to attend summer classes. At the end of the summer, students retake the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS). Test scores have gone up for three years in a row, and though the program is controversial, its results have made many around the country sit up and take notice.
Pressure may be inadvertently exerted on schools to retain students who don't do well on standardized tests, which are often used by the public to rate schools and are required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But such standardized measuring tools do nothing to find out why students fail.
Sometimes a parent may agree that a child needs to be retained. But if that's not the case, there are some things parents can do, and some rights guaranteed by law.
If a decision is made to retain the child, parents should make sure the child's experience will be very different during the second year in the same grade. Robertson even suggests transferring to a different school if necessary.
"The extra year should not be just a repetition of the previous year, but it should be individualized in such a way that it contributes to the child's future success," said Robertson.
She concludes that retention should be used rarely and should focus on instruction using new approaches.
Brozovich, who has counseled adults who are still upset about being held back as children, agrees.
"For many adults this is a very sad chapter in their lives," he said. "They feel stupid. It's like we've tattooed them."
Annette Kingsbury is a a reporter with the Observer & Eccentric newspapers in Oakland County, Michigan.