held back

Holding middle-schoolers back causes dropout rates to spike, new research finds

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post

To hold back or not to hold back? For many policymakers in the early 2000s, the answer was clear: it was time to stop allowing struggling students to keep moving through school.

“It’s absolutely insidious to suggest that a functionally illiterate kid going from third grade, it’s OK to go to fourth. Really?” explained Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, where he curtailed the practice known as social promotion.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg felt the same way. He introduced a policy of holding back low-performing students and fired appointees to the city’s school board who pushed back in 2004.

The idea was that the stricter standards would help students and schools alike. More time in school would give students the chance to catch up, allowing them to avoid the academic failure that could result from being continually promoted with big gaps in their skills. Thousands of additional students in Florida, New York, and across the country were held back in line with that theory.

Now, enough time has passed to see what happened to some of those students years later — and two recent studies reach a decidedly dire conclusion.

Being held back a grade in middle school, researchers found, substantially increased the chance that students dropped out of high school. In Louisiana, being retained in either fourth or eighth grade increased dropout rates by nearly 5 points. In New York City, the spike was startling: dropout rates were 10 points higher than similar students who weren’t held back.

A policy meant to make sure students stay on track, then, appears to have caused more students to leave school altogether.

“The takeaway from this would be that, at a minimum, we should be retaining fewer middle school students,” said Paco Martorell, a professor at the University of California – Davis who studied the New York City policy.

“If we’re talking about a middle school policy, I would strongly suggest against that at this point,” said Marcus Winters, a professor at Boston University who studied the effects in Florida.

Whether retention ultimately helps or harms students remains a crucial question. Though some places have relaxed their policies, others are adopting stricter rules. Michigan’s new retention law, for one, threatens to ensnare the vast majority of Detroit’s third graders.

The research also offer some better news, including out of Florida. Holding back students when they are younger doesn’t have such clear negative effects. And summer school, which often goes along with retention, can help students, potentially outweighing the downsides of retention policies.

Here’s what else the new research tells us.

Retention seems to increase drop-out rates.

The latest studies focus on Louisiana, New York City, and Florida. Each compares similar students, some who just barely earned a passing score on a test and others who just missed the cut-off, allowing researchers to zero in on the effects of being held back.

In New York City, the grade retention policy initially seemed promising. A 2013 analysis showed that retained students scored higher on state tests when they eventually reached the next grade.

The latest study, released earlier this year by RAND, looks at the long-run effects for those students held back between 2004 and 2012 and paints a starkly different picture. Students who were held back in middle school were much more likely to drop out of high school than the students who also went to summer school but who moved to the next grade on schedule.

There were no clear effects for students held back in elementary school, according to that recent RAND study. (An older Chicago paper found something similar: retaining eighth-graders increased future dropout rates, but retaining sixth-graders had no clear effects.)

In Louisiana, the recent research found that retention increased high school dropout rates for fourth or eighth graders who were held back between 1999 and 2005.

The rules around retention vary widely. In most cases, students are held back after they fail to pass a test, sometimes after summer help. In Florida, policymakers focused their policy on third grade, but other places, like New York City, introduced strict holdover policies in a number of grades.

There’s also lots of variation in just how often students are held back. Nationally, about 2 percent of students are retained each year, a number that has held steady or modestly declined since the mid-1990s.

In New York City, only 1 percent of students were retained across a number of grades. But in Louisiana, about 7 percent of fourth-graders and 8 percent of eighth-graders were held back. When the policy was first introduced in Florida, around 13 percent of third-graders were kept back, a number that eventually fell to around 5 percent.

Helping students catch up over the summer is beneficial.

Another recent study offers better news: In Florida, retention of third-graders in the early 2000s had no effect on their high school graduation rates, and it actually improved students’ grades in high school. The study also found that retained students saw an immediate test-score bump, though that faded over time.

What explains the more positive results? It’s hard to know, because the Florida study looks at not just retention but a package of policies that went along with it, including summer school and assigning students in the repeated grade extra reading help.

The Louisiana paper may shed some light on this question. It was able to separate the consequences of being held back — which appear to be negative — from the consequences of going to summer school. Sending eighth graders to summer school decreased their chances of dropping out of school down the line and their likelihood of being convicted of a crime before their 18th birthday.

In other words, the different results suggest that being held back hurts students, but the summer support that goes along with it helps them.

Retention is costly, though perhaps less so than some think.

There’s another downside to holding students back: it’s expensive to pay to keep students in school for more time. It costs both the school system and the student, who potentially misses out on an extra year of earning as an adult.

“Being retained may not confer benefits that justify spending an additional year in the same grade,” the New York City researchers concluded. “This is especially true given our finding that retention entails significant financial costs.”

The New York City study finds that each retained student costs the system roughly an extra $2,600 — a large amount, though far less than annual per-student spending.

White students are more likely to avoid being held back.

The consequences of retention, good or bad, are disproportionately felt by some groups of kids.

For instance, in Louisiana 85 percent of retained students were black, even though black students represented less than half of students in the state’s public schools at the time. In New York City, black students were more than twice as likely to be retained as white students with similar test scores.

Nationally, black and Hispanic students are substantially more likely to be held back. Some of that can be tied to test scores, but other research shows that white, affluent families are particularly likely to circumvent policies around holding students back.

In Florida, children whose mothers did not hold a high school degree were 7 percentage points more likely to be retained compared to their peers with equal academic performance whose mothers were college educated, another study found. The students who moved ahead anyway often took advantage of exemptions, like portfolios created by teachers to demonstrate that students should move on to the next grade.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the effects of retention.

Where does this new long-term research leave us?

Although retention itself may be harmful to students, the combination of retention and summer school in Florida and Louisiana was neutral or positive. One potential takeaway is that districts should maintain extra help for struggling students while scrapping retention.

But those policies are intimately connected in many places, so it’s not clear that you can pull out one part of the policy like a Jenga piece and have the rest of the apparatus remain intact. Indeed, new research by Winters, the Florida researcher, suggests that the threat of retention can cause students do better in school.

It might also spur changes across a school or community. That’s what is happening in Detroit, where the retention law has focused attention on young students’ reading. “We have to get involved now and do anything we can to get the proficiency level up for the second-graders,” as one Detroit principal told Chalkbeat in August.

Martorell, the Davis professor, says we still need more evidence to know whether there are hidden benefits to holding students back. But he warned that existing research indicates that some students are paying a price.

“Policymakers should think long and hard about whether these other effects that are not captured by these studies … are significant enough to incur monetary costs and potential negative effects on students,” he said.

Literacy

It’s not impossible to teach teenagers to read. But it takes serious investment

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel

Experts say it’s not impossible to teach older students how to read.

But late-stage intervention for students like Javion Grayer — a 16-year-old  who reads at a second-grade level after more than a decade in Chicago schools — takes daily practice and consistent one-to-one lessons with instructors trained to teach reading.

Such remediation, which expert say can’t happen in a general education setting or a large classroom, is something that most budget-strapped urban school districts, such as Chicago Public Schools, are ill-equipped to provide.

The district, though, insists it is taking steps to bolster literacy instruction. Just an hour after Chalkbeat published its profile of Javion — looking at how the teen fell so far behind and revealing the anguishing effects of his low literacy skills — Chicago Public Schools said it is developing a central reading curriculum that should be completed in the next two to three years. The goal: to ensure high-quality reading instruction and online library resources district-wide to support equitable access to content for readers at all grade levels, according to a district spokesperson.  

“It’s not acceptable for any student to leave our schools without being prepared for success, and the district will continue to build upon its academic improvements to ensure students have quality instruction and strong systems of support across the district,” said district spokesman Michael Passman in a statement. However, the statement skirted questions about specific interventions for older readers playing catch up.

What it will take to get students like Javion to grade level, is multipronged, literacy experts say.

“That’s obviously somebody who has fallen through the cracks,” said Rebecca Treiman, a professor of child developmental psychology at Washington University at St. Louis. “But there are ways to address these problems and it’s not like there’s a single age when somebody can read.”

Treiman, whose work focuses on spelling and literacy, echoed recommendations from other reading specialists, including nationally renowned literacy expert Louisa Moats, former Chicago schools reading director Tim Shanahan, and Alfred Tatum, dean of the college of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago — all of whom spoke to Chalkbeat.

After third grade, classroom instruction tends to move away from teaching students how to read and toward asking them to read in order to learn new material about other subjects.

For Javion and other older students with large literacy gaps, the experts recommended a return to basic phonics, in an effort to improve decoding ability, a daily diet of reading, and comprehension exercises. Shanahan and Treiman suggested a review of prefixes, suffixes, and common word roots. Moats prescribed helping students recognize commonly used “sight words,” and a focus on boosting vocabulary through reading and listening to texts. Treiman also recommended a curricular emphasis on students’ ability to perform everyday tasks, like filling out job applications and reading recipes. And Tatum was adamant about the need for culturally responsive curriculum, which takes into account students’ cultural identity, ethnic background and experiences.

However, even if such a rigorous remedial reading program were put in place in Chicago Public Schools, it’s still unclear how it would address the needs of older students. Such a program would also be optional for Chicago schools, since the district’s more than 640 schools, especially charter and contract schools, have a lot of autonomy to select curriculum. Since at least the early 2000s, Chicago has increasingly moved toward giving principals more freedom to choose what and how students are taught.

By contrast, the Houston Independent School District provides schools with guidance about the pace, scope, and sequence of English Language Arts instruction from pre-K-12, including “strategic reading and writing” curriculum for 9th and 10th graders who need remediation.

Having a centralized curriculum — while not a magic bullet —  is a way to ensure that students all start with certain building blocks of reading instruction, especially in the crucial early elementary years. And the earlier reading challenges are discovered, the better, experts say.

Reading was always painful for Javion Grayer, 16, but he wasn’t screened for special needs until seventh grade. Experts said he should have been evaluated early in elementary school.

Shanahan, formerly of Chicago Public Schools, recommended that the district push for about 50 minutes of phonics instruction a day in grades K-5.

“That’s how you figure out words in those early grades,” said Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was founding director of the UIC Center for Literacy. “But I’d be very surprised if that’s true at more than half the [district] schools.”

Shanahan also served on the National Reading Panel, which Congress convened to evaluate research about teaching reading. The panel’s findings favored a focus on decoding words by breaking them into parts and sounding them out. That’s as opposed to the “whole language” approach many schools across the nation have pushed, where students learn to use pictures or context clues to fill in ideas and recognize words.

In 2017 the percent of students in Chicago performing at or above reading proficiency was 27 percent on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That represents significant progress — in 2002, that number was 11 percent — but remains a cause for concern, given the lack of intensive reading instruction after third grade.

Students who fall behind after the third grade are more likely to be poor readers throughout life, and more likely to drop out of school, research shows. Students for whom English is a second language, especially recent arrivals to the United States or children whose parents lack English proficiency, are more prone to reading struggles. Meanwhile, serious gaps in reading ability often correlate with race and family income. Black and Latino students and those from low-income families tend to post lower test scores than their white and more affluent counterparts — largely the result of generations of racial and educational inequities.  

Moats said that such discrepancies often stem from “teacher training and the lack of it, the placement of less skilled, less experienced teachers in schools that are high minority populations or schools in less desirable neighborhoods.”

Reading failure, she said, “is way more common than anyone acknowledges. It affects way too many kids, and it’s unnecessary because it’s preventable; we know how to teach reading from decades of scientific work on how to teach kids to read.”

School discipline

Even as suspensions fall, Memphis students are being kicked out of school longer, data shows

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis alternative school students work with local activist Keedran Franklin, in yellow, to brainstorm policy proposals to prevent other youth from being incarcerated. At the top of the list was mentoring and jobs. Just under that was a call to eliminate suspensions and expulsions and replace with fostering better relationships between teachers and students.

Hidden behind what Memphis education officials have said is good news when it comes to student discipline is a disturbing trend: As short-term suspensions have decreased, expulsions have increased.

Graphic by Samuel Park

Last year, Shelby County Schools handed down nearly 2,500 expulsions, according to district data. That’s about 300 more than in the 2015-16 school year — when the district already had one of the highest expulsion rates in the nation, according to federal data.

In one extreme example, a single high school issued one expulsion for every six students.

On average, expelled students were barred from school for 106 days, or more than half of the school year.

And while Tennessee law and district policies mandate expulsions for some offenses, 83 percent of the expulsions came at school leaders’ discretion. A third were for violations of relatively minor rules.

The expulsion data reveals mixed results for the district’s push to reduce discipline methods that keep students out of school. Shelby County Schools handed out 4,700 fewer suspensions last year than in the 2015-16 school year. Yet the rise in expulsions means that the total number of school days that students missed for discipline reasons actually increased.

Students spent about 14,200 more days in class because of the reduction in suspensions, based on the average three-day punishment. But the increase in expulsions resulted in close to 33,700 more missed school days.

The district’s black boys bore the brunt of the trend. They make up 38 percent of the district’s more than 100,000 students, but accounted for 67 percent of expulsions last year.

The data is raising questions among supporters of Shelby County’s discipline push, which launched as the federal education department pressed districts to limit suspensions and expulsions and reduce racial disparities among students who are punished.

“What we don’t want is for practices that we’re trying to replace to be replaced with practices that don’t support students,” said Cardell Orrin, executive director of Stand for Children, an advocacy group that has supported the district’s discipline efforts. “If we hide at all what are the real struggles, then we don’t identify the resources that are needed.”

(Tennessee defines suspensions as exclusions from school lasting less than 10 days; suspensions longer than 10 days are called expulsions. The district provided the length of expulsions only for students without disabilities, about 92 percent of expelled students.)

Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

District officials emphasized the reduction in suspensions and blamed the high expulsion numbers on charter schools and the state’s “zero-tolerance” law that requires expulsions for certain offenses. “Charters most often do not use in-school suspensions and progressive discipline, so their expulsions increase our numbers,” said a spokesperson, Natalia Powers.

But the district’s own data showed that charter schools, which have also worked to reduce suspensions, collectively reported 64 expulsions last year, 3 percent of the district’s total. And data the district provided showed that at most, only a quarter of expulsions were mandated by law.

District officials have also said they are confident that the district’s nine alternative schools for expelled students are serving those students well. One of those schools, G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, recently received state recognition for its work with expelled students and students who are transitioning out of incarceration. Students there meet with behavior specialists, mental health clinicians, and social workers, while families get support as well. District officials said as many as 40 percent of students choose to stay at Carver after their expulsion is over.

“They’re children and they sometimes make poor choices,” said Valerie Matthews, the district’s alternative schools director, at a recent conference for young men who attend alternative schools. “We keep them on track academically, we teach them how to modify their behavior, we work with them, we’re patient with them, we love on them, and it works.”

But students who are expelled are not required to enroll in alternative schools — something that the district’s school board has asked state legislators to change.

Matthews acknowledged that not all students who are expelled wind up in alternative schools. She said students who are excluded from school for less than a month frequently do not make the switch, and other students don’t attend because they cannot get to the alternative schools. The district provides bus passes, but the city’s struggling bus system can make using them challenging.

That reality means there are students who aren’t being educated because of their misbehavior — and, students say, could make them more likely to run into trouble in the future.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
John Chatman is a senior at G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, an alternative school in Memphis that recently received recognition from the state for its services for expelled students and those returning to school after incarceration.

“When they stay out of school, it’s not really a lesson learned, because the only thing they do is go home and chill, or go out and do the same stuff they been doing,” said John Chatman, a Carver Academy senior who was expelled from both East High School and Northeast Prep, another alternative school. “It takes away from education. It also puts them back into an environment that they were trying to escape from.”

Indeed, removing or excluding students from class does not address misbehavior, said Zoe Savitsky, an attorney who oversees education litigation and policy reform for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Would you ever say to a 6-year-old, ‘Get out of my classroom until you learn to read?’” she said. “You actually have to teach behavior skills you want them to have. And exclusionary discipline just ignores that reality.”

Principals in Memphis schools have a great deal of discretion in handing out discipline. Just 17 percent of expulsions in Shelby County Schools last year were required under Tennessee’s “zero tolerance” rules, which mandate expulsions for serious assaults on school employees; drug use or possession, and having a firearm at school.

Half of the expulsions were for what the district calls “other threats” and offenses that include fighting and assaults that do not result in serious injury.

And a full third of the expulsions were for what the district calls “rules violations” that could include skipping class or being out of uniform.

The district did not offer more detail about which rules being broken resulted in last year’s expulsions. But many of the behaviors that fall into that category are exactly the kinds of offenses that the district has targeted in its push to reduce suspensions.

2018 Youth Action Networking event

  • What: Students in BRIDGES’ advocacy program for formerly incarcerated youth will present their ideas on how to reduce both suspensions and expulsions to several district and county leaders. The event is sponsored by Bridge Builders USA, the University of Memphis Law Diversity & Inclusion Office, and Project MI.
  • When: 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15
  • Where: BRIDGES, 477 N. 5th Street, Memphis, TN 38105

As part of that push, the district has hired more staff to dig into why students misbehave, crafted individual plans to help students improve, and rolled out alternative consequences before barring students from school. Now, 20 “behavior specialists” each work with about 10 schools to reduce suspensions, meaning that schools that don’t hire their own get only a little bit of support in working with students who misbehave.

“It kind of escalates, and [teachers] have to end up making an office referral for something that probably could have been redirected if they had the right tools,” Hargrave said. “If every school had someone who was an expert in trauma-informed practices or dealing with difficult behaviors along with the general staff, that would be ideal.”

Students suspended or expelled from school are more likely to have lower test scores, drop out of school, or become involved in crime than other students, links that led to the national push to reduce exclusionary discipline.

Advocates say that shift is especially necessary in Memphis, which has the highest rate in the nation of young adults who are not in school or working. Earlier this year, Orrin’s organization invited national expert Cami Anderson to train Memphis school leaders to prevent expulsions and suspensions and use alternative ways to discipline students.

Anderson previously was the superintendent of New Jersey’s largest school district and led New York City’s system of alternative schools for students with behavior issues. She said she’s not surprised expulsions went up while Shelby County Schools focused on reducing suspensions.

“If you only look at one, without intending, you can incentivize schools to take actions that have worse outcomes for kids,” Anderson said. “That’s true across the country.”