Friday, May 22, 2009

Helping Struggling Students: Repeat a Grade, or Socially Promote?

So you have a student who's flunking. What's the best solution for the student - repeat the grade or promote her anyway? Neither, according to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).

Their well-written and compelling position paper sorts out the evidence from years of study of comparable students who were academically lagging. Some were failing, but promoted anyway ("social promotion"). Others were failing, but were held back. The ones held back may have done better for a few months of the following year, but eventually showed no more academic progress than the promoted students. And in many ways, the ones held back were worse off - they got into more trouble, were more likely to drop out, etc.

According to the article:

"Research examining the overall effects of 19 empirical studies conducted during the 1990s compared outcomes for students who were retained and matched comparison students who were promoted. Results indicate that grade retention had a negative impact on all areas of achievement (reading, math and language) and socio-emotional adjustment (peer relationships, self esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance)."

What does all this have to do with character? Plenty. As noted in the quote above, repeating grades impacts

"socio-emotional adjustment (peer relationships, self esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance)"

Spelled out more specifically,

"Retained students have increased risks of health-compromising behaviors such as emotional distress, cigarette use, alcohol use, drug abuse, driving while drinking, use of alcohol during sexual activity, early onset of sexual activity, suicidal intentions, and violent behaviors. "

Those are character issues. Why does holding back make such an impact? Perhaps it's because "failing" a grade is much more traumatic than we realize.

Social scientists once asked to rate "twenty stressful life events." Amazingly, "6th grade students rated grade retention as the most stressful life event, followed by the loss of a parent and going blind."

So what does the NASP recommend to help failing students? Basically, detect the learning or behavioral problems as early as possible and address these issues in ways that have been proven to work. They may need tutoring, counseling or special classes designed to meet their needs.

So maybe a child has undiagnosed learning disabilities. Don't just hold her back to try it again, or socially promote her to see if things work themselves out. Rather, deal with the problems in specific ways to help her overcome her weaknesses and keep her moving through the system. The article recommends 13 ways to help these students, rather than holding them back.