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Too few of our students are succeeding. We should consider holding them back until they can.

  • Author: Dave Donley
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 19, 2018
  • Published December 19, 2018

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During my first two years on the Anchorage School Board, I have tried to figure out why our students are not testing better. Statewide public school K-12 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores for Alaskan children are some of the lowest in the nation. In a previous column, I explained how shorter and fewer school days give Alaska K-12 students less instructional time compared to other states. This puts our children at a disadvantage in national testing.

Less instructional time in Alaska schools is clearly a factor in why Alaska’s children are not doing well in national testing. But another factor is the Anchorage School District’s longstanding written policy that students should almost never be held back from passing on to the next grade. In education-speak, this is known as “promotion” versus “retention.”

The current policy states: “The School Board recognizes that research indicates that very few children benefit from being retained during the elementary and middle grades. The Superintendent or designee shall promote alternatives to retention among certificated staff.” In practice, this means students are very seldom held back or “retained,” no matter how unprepared they are for the next grade. When a teacher believes that retention is necessary to meet a student’s needs, they can ask the principal to establish a student study team to consider the child’s academic, social and emotional performance. Current policy states that the student’s parent/guardian shall be invited to participate on the student study team, but does not identify what level of say parents actually have.

This policy, more than a decade old, originated from an extensive body of educational/social science research that indicated that generally, grade retention hurts students more than helping them. The problem is that the current policy lessens accountability and facilitates students graduating without the basic skills we expect high school graduates to have. The now-discontinued requirement of a high school exit exam used to maintain more accountability.

Without an exit exam and with automatic grade promotion, I am concerned that some graduating students may not be fully learning the academic skills they need to succeed in life. More and more states are addressing this problem by adopting laws that require retention if certain academic goals are not met by students. A study of Florida’s third-grade reading proficiency retention policy has indicated its outcomes are better than the previous policies in favor of promotion.

Reading is one of these key basic skills, and 16 states and Washington, D.C., now have reading retention policies. These laws typically require an appropriate level of reading skills for students to advance from third to fourth grade. Extensive research indicates that students not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to not finish high school. It is now generally accepted that third grade is an important turning point in a child’s reading ability. It is the time when a child’s reading changes from learning to read to reading to learn. The ability to read to learn is a key factor in academic success as student’s progress through grades.

Those states in which this policy has been most successful (such as Florida and Tennessee) are the ones that have devoted significant additional resources to getting students what they need to be better readers. The combination of better instruction and accountability is working.

As a first step for the Anchorage School District, I have introduced a policy amendment to do away with the current strong presumption in favor of promotion, and instead have a case-by-case unbiased examination of what is best for each individual student, in which parents will have a strong role. Retention would be recommended when it is “academically appropriate and in the best interest of the student.” Students would typically be promoted not just by demonstrating “growth,” which is the current standard, but also by achieving adequate proficiency in learning required basic skills. Obviously, this new, neutral standard of “what is best for the child” will consider the individual circumstances, including special needs, of each student. This policy revision is currently scheduled to be considered by the Anchorage School Board’s Governance Committee in January 2019.

Dave Donley is an attorney born in Anchorage, served 16 years as a state senator and representative, and currently is a member of the Anchorage school board. This column represents his opinion as an individual member of the school board and is not endorsed by the board or the Anchorage School District.

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