Leave Retention Behind in Favor of Promotion on Mastery

The pastor was livid, he was so mad he could hardly talk (and he’s really good at talking). He had just come from a second day of school meeting that didn’t go well. The day before, his son came home and told him that all of his friends were in a different math class and his class was using the same book as last year. When he investigated, the teacher told him that in order to “promote college readiness” for his son, he was going to repeat 7th grade math. He had passed the class with high marks and the pastor and his son had attended three parent teacher conferences the prior year. With no notice, teachers had decided that 30 students, including the preacher’s kid, were going to repeat a math class.

When retention means repeating a grade, it is outdated and ineffective. It presumes that we don’t have any information about what the student struggled with and it wastes a year–for a student and a school system–repeating everything rather than pinpointing assistance.  “No independent academic study suggests it works,” said former NYC Chancellor Harold Levy in a WSJ post. Retention without communication is malpractice (and when it comes to the son of town’s biggest public education supporter, well that’s just dumb).  
The movement to end “social promotion” was part of state standards-based reform in the late 90s. Promoting kids based on birthdays ran counter to the goal of helping all kids reach high standards. But the decision to link No Child Left Behind accountability to grade level proficiency rather than harder to measure growth rates help solidify the old age cohort system. Schools become preoccupied with figuring out which kids they can get to pass the proficiency test at the end of the year and forget about kids that are two or more years behind because they don’t have a chance of passing.
The alternative to retention. The alternative to retention isn’t social promotion–it is mastery. When a student needs more time and help to master a skill, they should get it on the spot. It’s crazy to ask students to repeat grades or classes when what they really need is targeted assistance. When they have a gap that’s preventing them from learning the skills, then they need the time and assistance to fill their gaps in knowledge. Targeted time where they focus on exactly what they are missing after school or in the summer. The problem is that the old age cohort model, even with efforts like Response to Intervention, just doesn’t allow a lot of time for intervention or alternative approaches.  
A few extra weeks during the summer can help. Levy cited Cornell University economist Jordan Matsudaira who found that students who attended summer school performed better and were less likely to drop out and concluded that summer programs are among the most cost-effective intervention strategies for the lowest performing students. Summer schools can be a powerful prevention as well as intervention–a quick preview for students that have struggled to succeed in traditional classes.
What’s even better than tacking on a few weeks at the end of the year is constructing a competency-based learning system where no child is retained. As a former middle school principal, Rose Colby fully appreciates the challenges around retention decisions. She said, “As we turn the corner in designing new learning systems, the notion of considering retention can now be safely set aside.”  Colby, who coaches schools on making this transition, explains, “Our students will move through our learning systems with forward progress at all times. Some students will need more support, customization, and time to do so.”
In competency-based systems learning is more important than seat time. Learning progressions replace grade levels. Students progress based on demonstrated mastery–and they get time and assistance when they need it. Students get as far as they can with extra support during the day, afterschool and Saturday, then they can continue in the summer. They still may be at a different place but they pick up where they were when they return in the fall. Some kids may still be doing 8th grade math in 9th grade but they’ll soon complete math and start on 9th grade. Schools develop flexible schedules that change every 4 or 6 weeks, and and use blended learning to create more flexible pacing. “Students will move through our schools never having to suffer the stigma and negative consequences of retention,” said Colby.
Like any good ideas, there can be unintended consequences of poor implementations. If competency-based systems turn into tracking, it can be detrimental to the students that most need help. A recent UK study showed that “Children placed in the bottom stream did worse in maths and reading in key stage one assessments than similar children in mixed-ability classes. In addition to dynamic grouping strategies in core subjects, team-based projects and school-wide themes can encourage mixed ability grouping.
This is where holding all students to the same high academic standards is critical. “Standards set the benchmark foundation for student success,” explains an iNACOL report, Mean What You Say: Defining and Integrating Personalized, Blended and Competency Education, “We must ensure robust competencies and high standards for all students. Ensuring implementations don’t track students can be done by holding all students to the same, high standards to prepare them to be successful in college and careers to protect rigor and ensure equity.”
But how? The shift from time to learning and from age cohorts to learning progressions isn’t easy. Accordingly, Rose and I are leading tomorrow in New Hampshire called, “How Not to Get Fired Implementing Competency Education.” There are a growing number of schools to learn from and with. Following are three helpful resources:

Where should a school district or state start? “I like the idea of starting with graduation requirements as this is a huge leverage point,” said David Ruff. “We are not telling schools how to teach, but rather, how the state coordinates what it means to graduate.” Ruff leads the New England Secondary School Consortium, a network of hundreds of high schools working on proficiency-based learning.  Ruff worked with New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont on new proficiency-based graduation requirements and is working with Connecticut on theirs.
To provide more time and options to students that need them most, it helps to have a weighted, portable, flexible, performance-based funding system.  When schools have budgets that reflect the challenges that enrolled students bring to school, it is easy to construct extended learning options.  
“Competency education is not going to have all the answers, and it is certainly going to have its own unintended consequences,” said Chris Sturgis, co-founder of CompetencyWorks, “It is an essential step, however, in moving beyond our history of exclusion, sorting and tracking. Through competency education, we can discard the fixed mindset of yesteryear and embrace the growth mindset that is necessary for eradicating inequity.”

For more on competency-based learning and mastery, see:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.