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Merits of retention re-evaluated _ again

Published Sep. 1, 2005

Becky Lawson feared the worst when she learned her son, Garrett Sims, might have to repeat third grade because he failed the state reading test.

She knew from Garrett's teachers that her fidgety, freckled 9-year-old could read well enough. But she was equally aware that he'd much rather do just about anything else. So the idea of Garrett taking the same classes he already passed at Brooksville Elementary School worried his mom.

"I think he'd get real bored and he'd give the teachers a real hard time," Lawson said as she gazed at her son, who nodded in agreement. "It would have been a battle. I really think when kids start repeating, especially in third grade, they're going to start hating school, and eventually he would drop out."

Forcing low-achieving students to repeat a grade is a contentious idea, but one that the nation's biggest states and school districts have embraced. Some experts contend that children can benefit academically by repeating a grade. Others call the idea "educational malpractice."

The state Department of Education anticipated concerns such as Lawson's when it mandated that districts fail third-graders who can't pass the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT. It sent booklets to school social workers and counselors about how to deal with it.

Still, DOE leaders stood firmly behind the new rule to hold back what has turned out to be an unprecedented number of students who did not pass the reading FCAT or the alternative SAT-9 test or who did not submit an acceptable portfolio of classroom work.

"If a child is not reading independently, they are going to fall farther and farther behind," DOE spokeswoman Frances Marine said, adding that the state is taking steps to ensure children get the extra attention they need.

University of Houston sociologist Gary Dworkin cites his studies of students who failed the reading section of the Texas accountability test.

Students who repeated a grade after failing the test did worse initially, but eventually did better than underperforming students who had been promoted. His research also did not confirm claims that retained children have long-term academic struggles.

But Shane Jimerson, an education professor at University of California-Santa Barbara, argues that retention brings academic, social and emotional problems. Repeating a grade is the most powerful predictor of whether a student will drop out of school, he said.

"Retention goes in the face of 100 years of research," he said.

Schools could employ other effective methods of helping low-achieving students, Jimerson said. He particularly touted monitoring a student's progress, with teachers making adjustments as needed.

"The irony is, this is at the end of third grade," Jimerson said. "Many of them have been in the public schools three to four years. A policy to simply retain them based on reading skill at that particular point is not sensitive to the fact that they have been in their family, school and other environments for years."

In Hillsborough County, retained third-graders will move into the district's extended learning program, which provides individualized instruction before and after school and on weekends.

At Brooksville Elementary School, where Garrett attends classes, principal Sue Stoops plans to transfer her dropout prevention program from fifth to third grade.

Some teachers have asked the superintendent whether they can promote the children closest to attaining their reading goal and give them extra instruction while they complete fourth grade.

That would be fine with Terri Clark, whose daughter, Samantha, will repeat third grade at Pine Grove Elementary School in Brooksville despite passing all her classes.

"I would prefer to see her move up to the fourth grade to keep up her knowledge," Clark said, adding that she gladly would sacrifice a music or art class for reading remediation.