Promotion in Doubt

We sent home progress reports a few weeks ago. We send home five a year. What made this cycle different, is that on these we notified some of our parents of their child’s promotion in doubt status. This week, we will send home official DOE letters to these parents, informing them that we may recommend that their child repeat second grade. Doing this so early in the year both serves as a heads up for parents and as a “you better get your act together and start reading with your kid,” warning.

In the early years, repeating a grade can be a real gift to a child. Children develop at different paces, and many children enter kindergarten and first grade too young due to late cut-off dates. Repeating kindergarten or first grade can give children time to mature and catch up to their peers. Everyone could use more kindergarten.

As children get older,  repeating a grade can become more damaging psychologically and socially, because older kids are much more self aware than 5 and 6 year olds. Paradoxically, in early childhood, schools can recommend that children be retained but it is ultimately up to the parents. Whereas, in the third grade, children may be required to repeat a grade if they score a 1 on either the math or ELA state test. Imagine a student who doesn’t eat breakfast, is feeling sick, is a poor test taker, lacks the stamina to sit and focus for 70 minutes,( most children) whose native language is not English, and for one or all of those reasons, gets a 1 on either test. That student then must attend summer school and at its close retake the test and pass in order to continue on to fourth grade. In other words, not only are the tests developmentally inappropriate in innumerable ways, but a single testing experience can determine whether or not students are promoted or held back.

As a second grade teacher working with a low income population, this means that when I create my promotion in doubt list, I’m not only thinking about what will help my students learn. I’m also thinking about whether they can pass the test in third grade and survive the associated stress and trauma. Because, if they can’t, its better to hold them back now than next year.

Last year, the ICT class in second grade recommended that 17 students be held back because they were far below grade level. Only 2 were held back, presumably because it looks bad to hold over so many students. This year the third grade teachers predict that up to 25 students ( that’s almost 1/3 of the whole grade) might have to repeat the grade. And this time it’ll be mandatory.

This year, in my ICT class, we are recommending that 9 students repeat second grade. While that is in some ways a reflection on the students, it is mostly a reflection on the nature of third grade these days. We’re on the fence about three of those kids, but we know there is very little chance that they could pass the tests next year because they struggle with testing and language processing. We also don’t feel that they are ready for the stress and pace of a third grade classroom.

At my school the second and third grade share a floor and the difference between the two sets of classrooms is palpable. You can feel the tension oozing out of the third grade rooms and into the halls, from the strained voices of teachers, to the anger and anxiety you see on the faces of the students. Instead of engaging in meaningful interdisciplinary projects, this time of year is dominated by daily test prep, which only serves to frustrate and alienate students who are already struggling. Teachers are unable to differentiate, because they are racing through the curriculum so that they can “cover” everything before the test. The third grade teachers know that most of their students can’t keep up, but because of the tests, they can’t slow down to actually meet their students needs or engage their interests. If I could, I would hold even more of my students back to protect them from a traumatic year in which they’re taught to tie their self worth to a test score.

In order to make retention do what it is supposed to do, help children, we need to first, change the cutoff date so that all kindergarteners are 5 in September of their first year at school. Second, schools should be encouraged to hold kids back in early childhood when it actually works, as opposed to when children are in 3rd or 4th grade. In every grade,  decisions about who should be promoted or held back should be made by teachers and parents. One test score should not be enough to send a kid to summer school or hold them back. Schools and school boards should consider the whole child when deciding whether to send home those promotion in doubt letters. This could mean looking at a portfolio of student work, meeting with parents, observing the student in class and considering the student’s personality, home life and social life.

Finally, to state the obvious, the easiest way to alleviate this situation is to make the tests better and take the pressure off. Let’s try 45 developmentally appropriate minutes of diagnostic testing, not used to hold kids back or rate teachers, but rather to actually inform teaching and learning for the following year. Then, you won’t have second grade teachers wishing they could keep their kids in second grade forever if only to protect them from what lies ahead.

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