With school districts’ increased dedication to raising academic standards and abolishing social promotion, tremendous pressure has been placed on teachers and students to raise standardized test scores. While this may appear admirable from afar, its practical and real-life implications are not often as glowing. In fact, the push toward higher standards often leads to tracking, ability grouping, and grade retention-all of which have inherent problems. Tracking, grouping, and retention are widely practiced in the United States and in many other countries, and they are founded on both theory and research. Tracking, most often practiced in secondary schools, groups students into courses or sequences of courses of various levels of difficulty suited to their levels of achievement. Ability grouping, most often practiced in primary schools, assigns students within classrooms to homogeneous groups of like ability. Grade retention requires students who have not attained achievement standards to repeat one or more grades. All three practices are based on the belief that children of like abilities or levels of achievement can learn together more efficiently than can heterogeneous students. Other theories and research suggest that these practices may be inefficient and unwise. Some argue, for example, that students retained in grade may suffer declining self-concept which may deter their progress so that they are less likely to catch up with grade level standards. This is due, in part, to the fact that, by itself, grade retention does not address the causes of academic failure. Others counter that, to the contrary, such students would eventually fall further behind and drop out whether or not they were retained. To “socially promote” ill-prepared students would depreciate the value of the high school diplomas of those who meet rigorous standards. Similarly, some argue that it is more efficient to teach subjects such as mathematics when students share similar abilities. For example, it would seem difficult for consumer mathematics and calculus to be learned efficiently in one group. Still, it may be argued that faster learning students may benefit from helping slower-learning students. Schools might also provide more classroom time and intensified instructional services to at-risk students for remediation or to prevent them from falling behind in the first place.
While there is no magical cure for the ails of retention, alternatives must be examined before it’s too late-that is, before a student is about to be retained. By studying the experiences of successful students and making findings available to practitioners, researchers can help teachers focus on using teaching strategies that have been proven successful. The following recommendations could also be helpful.
• Encourage preschool enrollment in order to reduce retention rates.
• Require full-day kindergarten.
• Provide remediation that is proportional to children’s academic needs without regard to whether they are retained.
• Develop a strong advisor network that will allow faculty to get to know the students.
• Maximize peer relationships through cooperative learning and tutoring.
• Shift to interest-based learning where high school students are exposed to career-based or project-based education instead of the lecture and test-taking practices now used.
• Extend the academic calendar either to year-round schooling or longer school days.
• Focus on retaining motivated and qualified teachers.
• Hold teachers to expectations of higher levels of curriculum and instruction.
Researchers’ and practitioners’ voices aren’t the only ones that should be heard. Parents must also become more involved in helping their children avoid retention. Some ways to boost parent involvement are:
• Develop “tip sheets” that have helpful hints on how parents can get more involved in their child’s education.
• Develop parent education and outreach programs.
• Don’t wait until students are at risk of failing; begin communication with parents at an early stage.
Grouping and Tracking
Why does neither retention, grouping, nor tracking enhance the academic progress of most children? Unfortunately, in many schools, grouping and tracking have led to stagnant and generalized courses designed to meet minimum curriculum standards. In order for true progress to be made, the intent, purpose, and design of grouped classes must be examined and a high level of integrity maintained. The following recommendations deserve further consideration.
• Consider multi-age classrooms as a way to enrich children’s learning and development.
• Prioritize collaborative efforts among schools, employers, and higher education in supporting academic excellence.
• Have goal conferences with students. Integrate students’ self-assessments into decisions on their grouping.
• Provide stronger teacher and principal preparation coursework that will address diversity in learning rates and styles.
• Keep grouping flexible.
• Grouping should include high expectations, rigorous curriculum, and equitable access to high-quality instruction.
• Promote cultural awareness that will help teachers meet the diverse needs of their students.
• Promote public awareness. Educate the community on the best ways to group students.
• Hold administrators, teachers, parents, and students accountable. All must work together to achieve the optimum level of student success.