Monday, July 07, 2008

An Empty Retention Policy

An article from the Atlanta Journal last week states, Georgia's high-stakes testing program isn't so high-stakes after all. A state law aimed at stopping so-called "social promotion" says students in grades 3, 5 and 8 should repeat the year when they fail certain standardized tests.

But school districts are promoting the vast majority of those students anyway, even if they fail a second-chance retest, or blow it off altogether, an analysis of 2006 and 2007 state data by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reveals.

Gee, media folks….what took you so long? It’s been that way from my vantage point for the last six years, at least. I guess it just took 46,000 8th graders failing the math portion statewide this year for others to begin to see a pattern.

Of course, here in the Peach state it isn’t just one portion of the test that MIGHT keep a student in the 3rd, 5th, or 8th grade from advancing. The student has to fail the math and the language arts portions to be considered a candidate for retention in the 5th and 8th grades while reading MIGHT hold you back in the 3rd.

I use the word MIGHT because it is rare to have a meeting with parents and administrators regarding a student who failed the test and the student actually be retained. The procedures state that all stakeholders….administrator, teachers, and parents must be in agreement regarding the outcome of an evaluation meeting following failing test scores. Sometimes the parent objects so strongly the administrator relents. Other times….and this is what I normally see…..the administrator comes to the team of teachers prior to the parent meeting and advises that unless the student has excessive absences he or she will be passed along no matter what. In other words we are to play the game, talk the child up, and pass him or her along. While the procedures indicate that school officials take into account all data regarding whether the child is retained or not the data is often ignored or glossed over with platitudes such as, “Well, little Jimmy didn’t have a good a year because of this, that or the other, but with a little focus he’s going to have a great year in the next grade.”

This makes me physically ill.

I’m tired of retention language worded in such a way that everyone has an out….”might”, “could be”, “can be”. What about “will be”?

Unfortunately classroom teachers aren’t given much of a choice in the matter. I’m gong to endure the ire of an administrator by speaking my mind when I have been told privately we won’t be retaining a certain group of students no matter what? I’m going to run the risk of suddenly not having a contract or suddenly finding myself in a different school due to a county mandated transfer? When teachers do question this practice administrators generally state they are following directives from the county. Hmmmm….and I wonder who the county receives their directives from?

Over the last few years I’ve watched children progress to the next grade who rarely turned in assignments, children who rarely opened a book, children with a majority of Fs on their report card, children whose parents have been literally begged to come in and work with us on creating a plan for their student’s success (always a no show), or children who only succeeded during the school day by disrupting every lesson in some form or fashion.

These are the same children who finished each 60 question test within 15 minutes of the start time though they had 45 to 60 minutes to carefully think about their answers, and they refused to check their work when asked. The two week testing window was merely an elongated nap period where during the more lucid moments the child could create pretty designs by coloring in patterns with the answer sheet bubbles.

Yes, he should have scored at least a 300 on this test, unfortunately he only scored a 98. He did bubble in his name correctly, however. Enjoy the next grade level!

I understand the research that shows retention very rarely ever cures the problem, and personally within the small group of students I’ve ever been allowed to retain only one made any real turn-around or progress during the year they repeated with me.

However, are we really solving our problems by allowing students to progress to the next grade when they are clearly not ready?

Most of the children I have seen in this predicament didnt' suddenly have a bad year in 3rd, 5th, or 8th grade. They have had a myriad of problems from day one....from first grade or even before.

[In the article, State Superintendent Kathy Cox defends] schools' use of the appeal process, which allows promotion if the principal, parent and teacher agree. When she worked on the bill as a state representative, she said, she believed it would be used mainly to identify and help struggling students — not to retain large numbers of them. She said retention "should be a last resort."

Legislators and government types are confused, however, and who can blame them? Their intent with the retention portion of the law was to stop the process of advancing children and pushing them along before they were ready for the next grade.

The Atlanta Journal was also able to uncover that since the law went into effect, the state education department has not looked yearly at how many students were retained because of the tests.

Excuse me? I’m required to keep all sorts of classroom data from textbook information, my own test scores over a period of time, personal data on every student including all of their test scores since day one of their school career so I can analyze it myself to produce a program of action to help the student achieve, analyze noticeable trends and problem areas in my teaching and yet the Georgia Department of Education isn’t tracking how many students are retained each year who don’t pass muster on “the test”?

In their own examination The Atlanta Journal was able to uncover that during the years 2006 and 2007 10 to 20 percent of students failed on their first try with “the test.” Of that 10 to 20 percent only 2.5 percent of eighth-grade testers, 1.7 percent of fifth-grade testers, and 2.9 percent third-grade testers were ultimately retained.

It has been widely reported that over 46,000 eighth graders failed the math portion of the CRCT this past spring. This is a dismal, dismal statistic that clearly indicates problems with the standards, problems with “the test”, problems with the teaching, and problems with the students.

However, even in 2007 the total number of eighth graders who failed the math porton was 9,500…..While better than 46,000 it still is not anything to write home about. Unfortunately The Atlanta Journal discovered that of those 9,500 students a whopping 92 percent were able to progress on to high school even though they did not pass “the test.”

Is it any wonder our high schools have to add so many remedial math courses? After high school the cycle continues with colleges having to add more and more remedial math classes.

When are we going to admit that our “one-size-fits-all” test isn’t working as a true measure of student success….or even more importantly when are we going to admit that the damned test, as I lovingly refer to it, isn’t working as a true measure of student failure either?


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, albeit sad. But true. Thanks for it. As someone who homeschools, I know little about the high schools of today, but I recently learned from a relative about how many students are in remedial classes. Something is surely amiss, as you state so well.

Bodog said...

Ugh, retention/promotion debates are always a pain and everyone passes the buck. I was in a meeting recently with coworkers. I work with both middle and high school teachers. I'm middle school and a high school teacher made a comment about classroom expectations and how students rarely are prepared with pencil, paper, etc because "they weren't expected to have those things in the middle school." Well, if we're going to do that, then we don't make a big deal about it because they apparently don't insist on coming to school prepared in elementary.

The same happens with retention/promotion. How can you promote him if he didn't X, Y, or Z? I don't know, how did they do it before?

Rather than looking at the schools and teachers, we need someone willing to look at the families because a continual habit of failing is rarely because of the teacher, subject matter, or student abilities. It has to do with the student's family.

M-Dawg said...

Excellent Post EHT -

We have the same problem here in MA. I've been teaching 9th graders for 10 years. Taught four years in NH and the past six years in MA. Every year, my 9th graders live in a world of "denial" - they seem to think that they can fail all four quarters and still pass my class (and their other classes) for the year. They've been able to fail their classes the past three years and still pass, why not now? It doesn't work that way in high school. We definitely "pass the buck" - the colleges complain that the high school teachers are not doing their job either.

I had five 9th graders this year in my co-taught SPED class that could not read above a second grade reading level. How do I teach to kids like this? The bigger question: How were they able to pass all the way to 9th grade w/o knowing how to read???? Two of the kids have already dropped out of school. :-(

I agree w/ Bodog - families also need to play a role in the educational process of their child. "We are a village" and we all need to work together to help these kids.

And, the child needs to want the education too. If the value of an education is taught at home starting at an early age, hopefully, that child will succeed in education throughout their life.

Dan Edwards said...

Nice Post ! Is there any state without such a problem ? But, it all comes down to money and doing what is truely "right". Out here on the "left coast", there is no way they state would provide the amount of money to keep back the number of children who are academically not ready to go to the next grade level. And, the teachers unions would get blamed for having contracts with school districts that keep their "members" from being transfered around ( idea of why aren't the "best" teachers at the "most needy [ worse } schools"?
And, there would be a huge outcry that most of the children being retained are "minority" children and the system is out to get them.....

We need to get out of the mindset that if a student is "x" years old, they need to be in "X" grade. Make grade placement based on proven achievement ! Isn't that how it is in the "real world" of business ? You don't usually start out in the mail room/copy room / office gopher if you have earned an MBA .....

Unknown said...

We have the same empty retention policy - however on the flip side, we also now have the double retainee's with a late birthday which translates into 13 almost 14, bursting with hormones and still in the 5th grade. We lived in fear last spring that one of the young ladies in this situation was going to turn up PG.

Teacha said...

Thank you for addressing an issue that plagues the education system across America, not just in Georgia.

I have been frustrated with this whole thing for a since I started teaching. I, like M-Dawg, teach 9th graders. By the time their 14 or 15 year old, it is EXTREMELY difficult to correct deficiencies from so long ago. Everyone is to blame for these problems; however, teachers (especially from the earlier grades) seem to receive the most criticism.

You pointed out many problems with testing and retention programs . . .but how do we fix them? No magic pill for this one. I feel like this cycle is going to continue on and on--because these are now systemic problems