Pass or Fail: Test-Based Retention Practices and Education Standards

In this multi-part series, I provide a dissection of the phenomenon of retention and social promotion. Also, I describe the many different methods that would improve student instruction in classrooms and eliminate the need for retention and social promotion if combined effectively.

While reading this series, periodically ask yourself this question: Why are educators, parents and the American public complicit in a practice that does demonstrable harm to children and the competitive future of the country?

Is testing an accurate portrayal of what students actually know and does it help them progress from one level of mastery to the next?

Today, retention occurs primarily or exclusively based on test results, often without due consideration of the fairness or appropriateness of the test itself.

Some researchers have argued that test-based retention may have a net benefit to society. Contradictory as it might seem, given what we have just discussed, proposed reasons for the benefit include the following: test-based retention can (a) create a more homogeneous class environment that can facilitate instruction, (b) provide motivation for all students to obtain the requisite knowledge, and (c) provide motivation for all teachers and school officials to deliver adequate learning opportunities for all students. These approaches are themselves potential benefits.

According to the theories of classical utilitarianism, the aggregated benefit across all individuals is also significant and outweighs the costs because the majority of students can thrive based on their test scores and regarding promotion or retention.

As Levin has identified, supported by Xia and Glennie, the costs of test-based retention are numerous. They include loss of income and lost tax revenues; increased reliance on government- subsidized health coverage by those that are impacted by these policies, increased criminal activity, higher reliance on welfare benefits, and added instructional resources required for each additional year of schooling generated by the retention.

From a purely economic perspective, the costs associated with test-based retention rival the resulting benefits of these policies to promoted students. Although there has yet to be a formal weighing of costs and benefits of retention policies, the overall net economic benefits of test-based retention policies appear to be negligible.

The economic costs generate an educational disadvantage large enough to have a dramatic adverse impact on the life chances of the retained students. We must also factor in ethical issues: testing heavily infringes on the life chances of low-performing students, constituting a significant violation of fairness.

Even if a net economic benefit resulted from a test-based retention policy for society as a whole, the acceptance of these benefits demands the educational disenfranchisement of so many minority and poor students as to be unconscionable.

Test-based retention is also problematic from a purely assessment-based perspective, regarding how it assesses and how these assessments measure up to basic parameters of fairness. Most forms of test-based retention, considered against criteria for fair and valid testing, fall short. The first problem is measurement validity.

Regarding measurement validity, test-based retention leads to an evaluation of each specific test used in retention decisions. No one can assess validity in a general way because scores are not rigorously applied when retention decisions are made. A school may retain a child who achieves a score within a certain range, based on the determination of relevant education professionals. A different group of education professionals could promote another child who has the same score or even a lower score. There’s little evidence of consistency in scoring.

The effectiveness of treatment is perhaps the policy most prone to consistent violation by test-based retention. Since grade retention is an educational placement, the standards for testing should result in educational placements should that are educationally beneficial to the student. Indeed, if retention is to be a test-based decision, educators should evaluate grade retention per se to determine whether it is ever educationally beneficial.

Of course, retention does have a certain intuitive appeal, which we should not entirely discount. Students who have not adequately mastered certain material should be offered a second attempt to master it. They should undertake that attempt before they graduate to the next grade, where there are new demands to contend with and where the material becomes more difficult.

There are limitations to this rationale, though. Among other things, it clearly ignores the mediating issues. Grade retention inevitably reestablishes students in the same learning environment in which, on their first attempt at knowledge and skills mastery, they have had little success. Retention becomes not only pointless but often takes on the character of punishment.

The embarrassing stigma associated with grade retention is, as we have already shown, intense. There is also the anxiety that most students feel with respect to the retention experience. These negative attributes make retention unlikely to engender any real educational benefits. Students may be worse off regarding academic and cognitive growth than if they had never experienced retention.

Some studies demonstrate that retention puts most students in a worse position than they would be if they had not been retained, meaning that the placement has no educational benefits at all and thus that it is also contrary to standards for test-based placements.

If, collectively as educators, we push back against testing culture as a form of retention measurement, perhaps we can start to find real solutions for students.

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