Why children no longer flunk in school

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

The realization crept up on Edmonton school administrators and shocked them to the core: One in five children was failing Grade 1.

It was the early 1980s and officials learned of the high retention rate by chance through a testing program that found that about 20 per cent of pupils, many of them boys whose birthdays fell just before the enrolment cutoff, were in their second year of Grade 1.

"That was simply unacceptable," said Anne Mulgrew, supervisor of student assessment for Edmonton public schools.

The recognition, coupled with a burgeoning body of research concluding that repeating grades is harmful and doesn't help children catch up, led the board to largely stop failing children in elementary and junior high schools.

Across Canada, in fact, holding children back has become increasingly rare. Instead, children who do not meet minimum grade standards usually move ahead with their peers a practice known as social promotion while also receiving remedial help.

"Failing students really sends some very damning and negative messages, which impacts on their entire lives," said Lori Tighe, director of assessment and instructional support services at the Winnipeg School Division.

Indeed, studies suggest that flunking youngsters carries long-term consequences: It damages their self-esteem, doesn't improve their marks and increases drop-out rates. A 2001 study of U.S. sixth graders found they viewed failing a grade as the most stressful life event, ahead of losing a parent or going blind.

"This is, for some people, a counterintuitive body of evidence," said Ken Leithwood, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. "But for the most part holding kids back, especially in the elementary grades, seems to have only negative effects on their subsequent learning."

As a result, social promotion has largely become the norm for struggling elementary and middle-school pupils. Children who are moved ahead a grade without adequately grasping the curriculum are often given a range of extra support, including tailored instruction from their teachers.

However, few boards track retention levels among younger pupils. At the Toronto District School Board, "very, very few" pupils repeat grades, said Tracy Hayhurst, central co-ordinating principal for elementary curriculum.

In Edmonton, Ms. Mulgrew estimated that less than 60 out of 6,000 Grade 1 pupils under 1 per cent were retained in 2005-06. "And often that is at the insistence of parents because when push comes to shove, a parent can actually insist that a child repeat."

Just this week, Mary Michailides, the principal of Glenora School in Edmonton, met with the parents of a Grade 2 pupil, who were adamant that she be held back because of her difficulties with language arts and math. But after Ms. Michailides told them about the current thinking on grade retention, they agreed the girl should move ahead.

"Keeping them back won't make a huge difference academically, but it will make a negative difference socially, emotionally," she said.

In Halifax, the number of grade repeaters is even lower. Just 71 out of 39,583 children enrolled in primary to Grade 9 were retained in the last school year. Many of those missed big chunks of time due to illness or travel or, in the later grades, truancy.

"If the students are struggling, they're probably going to struggle whether they're repeating or whether they're moving ahead and the key is making sure that those interventions are in place," said Geoff Cainen, director of program for the Halifax Regional School Board.

(Because high-school students are required to obtain a set number of credits, failing a course usually means repeating the class or picking up another credit elsewhere.)

But among teachers, there is dissent about the merits of social promotion, with some seeing the practice as ineffective in addressing gaps in learning.

"I've always felt that you're not really doing a child a service if you're putting him through," said Patrick Mascoe, a Grade 6 teacher in Ottawa who himself failed Grade 1 after frequent absences due to asthma.

"If our goal as teachers is to make sure that kids develop self-discipline and are always trying to achieve to do their best, I think it just has an adverse effect on them because it teaches them that, 'You know what? I can get by without doing my best.'"

About this time last year, Mr. Mascoe recommended retention for two of his pupils, one of whom missed about half the year in addition to regular absenteeism in the previous grade. Instead, both children were placed in Grade 7.

In the end, however, neither social promotion nor retention is the whole solution, said Penny Milton, CEO of the non-profit Canadian Education Association.

Instead, she said, the best strategy is early, intensive intervention for struggling children and greater emphasis on literacy.

In Ontario, she noted just 84 per cent of Grade 10 students passed a recent province wide literacy test.

"On its own, [social promotion is] not much of an answer, although it's probably less damaging to kids than grade retention," she said. "Both approaches aren't helpful, or at least they're not solutions to the problem."