The unquantifiable part of my discussion with “Rick”

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The studies show that retained students do not do as well in life as those students who are socially promoted. The studies miss an important point, though — one that desperately needs to be put on the radar. We know the effect of retaining students on students retained. We have been tracking this phenomenon for decades. What we don’t know is the effect of retention on the nonretained.

What happens when students watch failing students get promoted to the next grade? That effect of retention — or lack of retention — on regular students exists, and we cannot assume the magnitude of the effect is trivial. Students watch and learn from each other. They sometimes consider consequences in making behavioral decisions. A perfect example is the Illinois Constitution test. Illinois state law requires Constitution tests in middle school and again in high school. Students must pass to move on to the next grade. I have given these tests at both the middle school and high school level. (I do have an absurd number of endorsements for readers who are trying to figure out my backstory.) In the high school, we scheduled evening study sessions in the local library. Students sprawled across the floor, sat in chairs or propped themselves up against chairs as we studied for that test. Motivation was extremely high. Bilingual and ESL students especially take this one requirement seriously because they have been told they must pass the Constitution test to graduate. No other test or even final exam generates close to the same level of effort and motivation.

Expectations affect academic effort. If students expect they must pass a Constitution test to get their diploma, they will learn the provisions of the Constitution. If students think F grades may deprive them of a chance to go on to the next grade with their peers, at least some students will put in extra effort to make sure they don’t get that F. Unfortunately, we can’t put a number to this effect. How many students have been saved from flunking because “Ramses” flunked and his friends and cousins all became more academically serious after seeing how much “Ramses” hated repeating the eighth grade?

What happens when we promote everyone to the next grade, regardless of academic effort and achievement? What is the message we just passed on to the average Joe or Joanna? Our high achievers are likely to continue to be high achievers. The research nicely documents the fact that high achievers in middle school tend to remain high achievers. But what about those students with the 2.0 GPA who write 3 sentences when 5 are expected? Who lose their pencils and books regularly but who still chug along asking for more pencils and turning in mostly finished assignments? What message do they take with them when we pass along that student who failed multiple classes?

Those lower-scoring students will get the message. The grapevine where I work functions well, in part because we have many large families. I asked a girl today about her siblings and found out she has five brothers and one sister. That’s not uncommon in my school. I always keep coloring books around for parent-teacher conferences. Many families are interconnected. We have a lot of cousins in our classrooms. Many times, I have heard students tell friends about what happened to their “cousin” (or brother, sister, etc.) who failed the previous year. If nothing happened, that information gets filed away.

There are kids who will always try and always do well. There are kids who bring so much baggage to the table that best efforts may not prevent their failing. My concern is for the kids in the middle, the kids who are savvy enough to listen to the stories of the preceding year and base their behavior on the expectations created by those stories, the kids who may let an F or two slip by because any costs or consequences from that lack of academic diligence don’t seem terribly large or important.

When we pass everyone on, we pass on a profound message that grades don’t matter much, if at all.