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Merits of retention re-evaluated yet again

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. "We're trying to address the deficiencies they have."

Education Commissioner Jim Horne and Gov. Jeb Bush based their policy largely on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, a report written for the U.S. Department of Education in 1998 amid concern that too many children could not read.

But the book doesn't endorse retention. It states that "excellent instruction" is the best solution for poor readers.

"Retention has many supporters among teachers, administrators and the public," the authors wrote, "but there is little evidence that retention practices are helpful to children."

Repeating a grade is the most powerful predictor of whether a student will drop out of school, said Shane Jimerson, an education professor at University of California-Santa Barbara, whose research has won awards. It brings academic, social and emotional problems, too.

"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.

Schools should promote the students and deal with their learning problems, he said.

"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."

University of Houston sociologist Gary Dworkin disagreed, citing 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.

Success comes from hard work and proven teaching methods, Dworkin said.

His research also did not confirm claims that retained children are likely to have long-term academic struggles.

Charles Thompson, director of the North Carolina Education Research Council, suggested the specter of retention helps many children.

"There's a very strong tendency to focus on the kids who are retained," Thompson said. "You don't want to ignore the impact of this on other kids who are motivated to work harder."

He noted that many school districts step up instruction because they know high-stakes tests are coming.

The key, Thompson argued, is to properly diagnose all students' individual learning needs, then meet those needs.

"It's pretty clear that . . . just running them through the grade another time doesn't help too much," he said. "It's probably even destructive."

With money tight, providing the extra help could be difficult, he acknowledged: "The important thing is how you spend the resources you've got."

That's the focus of cash-strapped districts in the Tampa Bay region.

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

Pinellas County will extend its dropout prevention and Target on Reading programs into third grade at several schools.

Forty-three elementary schools will get reading coaches, continuous assessment and progress monitoring through Reading First, a federal grant program. The district also has made its Destination Reading program available on the Internet.

Pasco County will see little change because third-graders already are grouped with fourth- and fifth-graders in multiage, continuous progress classes, assistant superintendent Sandy Ramos said.

"If kids are weak in one area and strong in another, they can still work with their peer group in one and continue to get extra help in the other," Ramos said.

But the district will expand its Accelerated Literacy Learning program, train teachers and seek more volunteers to help students, Ramos said.

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

Several other Hernando County principals plan to shrink class sizes and train teachers.

Some teachers have asked the superintendent whether they can promote the children closest to attaining their reading goal and give them extra reading 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. "For one lousy test to mess up her life, no. . . . To put all that pressure on an 8-year-old blows my mind."

Becky Lawson, background, fears that making her 9-year-old son, Garrett Sims, foreground, repeat third grade will make him more likely to drop out of school. Because of such fears, the principal at Garrett's school, Brooksville Elementary, plans to transfer the dropout prevention program from fifth to third grade.

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