Sunday, December 10, 2023

Grade Retention Sleight of Hand

There's some new research out, and for whatever reason, folks like Jay Mathews insist on framing it as a victory for grade retention. Instead, it tells us mostly what we already knew.

The study comes courtesy of the folks at Fordham Institute and was carried out by two researchers (an economist and a statistician) from RAND. Here's the key couple of sentences:

For example, recent studies from Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, Chicago, and New York City provide evidence that grade retention in elementary school (generally in grades 3–5), when implemented as part of a broader remediation effort, can increase test scores through middle school and reduce the need for future remediation. 

I'm not going to try to dissect the research itself, though it carries an air redolent of the confusion between correlation and causation, and its major data sampling comes from Florida, where testocratic baloney runs rampant. What I am going to do is to drop back into English teacher mode, because there's an important lesson here in the difference between independent and dependent clauses and how these are useful tools in framing.

In this case, we've buried the whole business in a larger dependent clause, but within that clause, the relationships still hold. Here's the main clause:

grade retention in elementary school (generally in grades 3–5)...can increase test scores through middle school and reduce the need for future remediation

And the subordinate clause

when implemented as part of a broader remediation effort

That placement allows Mathews and Fordham and others to frame this research as a vindication of grade retention policy, while downplaying the critical piece of policy. the piece that, in fact, teachers regular complain is missing from retention policies. 

The researchers and everyone writing about them could just have easily written this sentence:

Broad remediation efforts, which may include grade retention, can increase test scores through middle school and reduce the need for future remediation.

That would arguably be a more honest framing, since it's the broad remediation efforts and not the actual retention that matter. They are absolutely critical, because otherwise you're just separating students from their friends, subjecting them to the embarrassment of Being Held Back, and just parking them in the same desk in hopes that something clicks this time. In more devious states, leaders aren't even hoping something clicks; they just want to hold the student in place for a year and then jump the student two years, conveniently skipping over the year in which this low-achieving student would have taken the state's Big Standardized Test (the secret of "miracles" in more than one state).

The study does note that trying the retention trick in middle school correlates with poor results all around. They don't really have a theory of why, but I'd guess that by then the same trajectory that results in failing middle school classes is the trajectory that doesn't lead one to other school-flavored successes. 

So why frame this research around the retention and not the support? It could be that retention (particularly in third grade) is a popular policy among non-education policy makers. It's simple, and it's way cheaper than sending schools the resources they need for broad support. It also appeals to the rising tide of competency based learning advocates, who can say, as Daniel Domenech does to Mathews, “if students were taught at the level that they are at and allowed to progress as they achieve mastery, there would be no need to retain them.”

Flunking 8 and 9 year olds because they didn't pass a Big Standardized Test is easy; giving additional supports and resources to students in poor and under-resourced schools is hard. "Flunk everyone who didn't make the cut score," is quick and simple. Broad support systems require investments of time, money, and staffing. And, of course, the retention is a hot new reform idea, while the broad support for students who need it has been the request of teachers since the invention of dirt.

Maybe this research is solid, or maybe it's just well-packed baloney. I'm not going to get into that now (though my suspicions have a first name). But even if this is legit, the framing of it is irresponsible; it's a sleight of hand trick aimed at getting you to pick the card they want you to pick. Whenever someone brings up this report, ask them why they didn't write the sentence the other way. 

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