Schools Here Mostly Balk at Holding Back Pupils ; Struggling Students Aren't Helped by Grade Repetition, Educators Say

By Jung, Yoohyun | AZ Daily Star, July 31, 2016 | Go to article overview

Schools Here Mostly Balk at Holding Back Pupils ; Struggling Students Aren't Helped by Grade Repetition, Educators Say


Jung, Yoohyun, AZ Daily Star


Connie and Gary Halkowitz were out of options.

The foster daughter they are adopting was doing poorly in school - - so poorly she was getting mostly D's and F's. They hired a tutor and took away privileges like sleepovers, the school dance and her iPad.

The Halkowitzes met with Sahuarita Middle School officials several times during the school year. But when nothing seemed to help, they began exploring the option of having their daughter repeat seventh grade.

At first, they said, school officials seemed to offer retention as an option. Until it was clear they weren't.

Frustrated, Connie took the issue to the state's schools chief, Diane Douglas, who was hosting a town hall in Tucson.

Douglas' response? "Local control."

School boards decide matters such as retention and promotion, she told the mother. There was nothing the Arizona Department of Education could do.

So on Aug. 8, the girl who last year failed almost every class will move on to eighth grade.

"She's going to have a real tough time in high school if she doesn't get this right," Gary said. "I don't want high school to be so hard that she doesn't go to college."

The Sahuarita Unified School District has not retained a middle school student in the past five years, data collected by the Arizona Daily Star show. Tucson-area districts generally retained only a few middle-schoolers, with the exception of the much-larger Tucson Unified School District, which held back more than 80 last year.

Districts have control

Sahuarita retained about 33 students districtwide last year, said Brett Bonner, the district's assistant superintendent, who is in charge of overseeing retention policy and process. All of those students were in kindergarten through third grade.

The district generally does not retain at the middle or high school level. "We believe it should be an early intervention if retention is considered," Bonner said.

Factors for a student to be considered for retention include poor academic performance, cognitive disability, low scores on classroom, benchmark and standardized testing and social-emotional needs, he said. But even then, it's a last resort.

The law is ambiguous when it comes to promotion and retention, said Charles Tack, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education. It gives local districts, as the state schools chief told Connie Halkowitz, the power to decide what the process should look like.

It names teachers as the ultimate arbiter of student retention, but it also lets parents challenge a district's decision to promote or retain, he said.

Research shows no proof that retention helps a struggling student, said Shane Jimerson, professor of school psychology at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

"In fact, grade retention has been found to be among the most powerful predictors of future academic failure, including dropping out prior to high school graduation."

Yet, what researchers call "social promotion," which means students are promoted based on their age or social group without having mastered the academic material, does not appear to be the answer, either.

"The evidence clearly indicates that we must move beyond grade retention and social promotion," he said. "Instead, educational professionals must focus on interventions that build upon the strengths of students and target their needs."

Intervention methods could include targeted tutoring, after- school programs, alternative education and summer school.

Tutor hired

The Halkowitz's foster daughter came to live with them in 2014.

She said she likes school, but that her grades have always been low.

"I've never had to have them good before," she said. Nobody at home reminded her to do homework or study. Academics also weren't a priority in the children's shelter where she and her brother were living before they joined their new family.

The Halkowitzes were determined to make the children's lives better. …

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