I’ve been sifting through a significant amount of data recently. I know you have, too. It’s that time of year again. Assessments have dominated classroom time for weeks now — from Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) to Illinois Assessment for Readiness (IAR) to SAT to Reading Horizons, the time to measure student learning intensifies as we wrap up the school year. Our focus turns from growth to achievement. Did we grow enough to see the impact on achievement data? How do we know if students are ready for the next level?
There are no simple or easy answers to these questions. In fact, as I’m learning, the answers are as complex as ever. Recently there have been discussions about the impact of students who move on to the next grade level without having mastered the standards. I remember this happening when I was a kid. In fact, it used to be a rather common practice. But, does it really work? Does it change outcomes for students? How does it impact them in the long run?
Some suggest the source of the problem is a lack of will on the part of the District to retain students. If RPS 205 would just retain more fifth graders or first graders, they argue, outcomes would improve.
The answers to these questions matter an awful lot. You may be familiar with John Hattie’s research, Visible Learning (2009). In essence, Hattie explains that “in education most things work. The question is which ones work best and where to concentrate our efforts”. In his pursuit to demonstrate what works — and to what degree it works — he also reports what doesn’t work. Hattie establishes a very simple scale to demonstrate his meta-analyses of 90,000 studies including more than 3 million students to demonstrate what works in education, and what doesn’t. Then, he ranks more than 250 influences on student achievement against this scale. Simply put, an effect size greater than .4 indicates a positive influence on student achievement; an effect size less than 0 indicates a negative influence on student achievement.
In the 2018 update to Hattie’s work, retention has an effect size of -.32. To put that in perspective, suspension/expulsion have an effect size of -.2, corporal punishment in the home -.33. Retaining students has a greater negative impact on student achievement than expulsion. In fact, of the more than 250 influences measures, only 17 are identified as “likely to have a negative impact on student achievement.” Retention is one of them.
Hattie’s research is not meant as a checklist for success in education. Simply grabbing the top ten influences and adopting them for district-wide use isn’t the intent of the research. Rather, by conducting the meta-analyses, Hattie has created a barometer for decision-making. In our district, we believe in putting students first. The policies, practices, and underlying philosophies of our work have to rely on the field of research to guide us. And on the topic of retention, the data is clear: it’s just not good for kids.
So, what do we do? We know that the majority of our students are not performing at grade level as defined by the IAR and the SAT. The data is very clear about that. We also know that our students are growing. As a district, we’ve invested in NWEA MAP, Reading Horizons, teacher leadership, and much, much more. If we lean on the same body of research, we can see that many of the investments we’re making in our time, resources, and training are supported by Hattie’s research, indicating we’re on the right path. Take a look at how some of our initiatives measure up:
The decision to retain is personal and unique to each child. It’s a rare case when retention is in the long-term best interest of the child. We are continually committed to best practices that have a positive influence on kids — and while the debate around retention is still alive in our collective conversation, our focus and resources remain aligned with proactive supports for kids. As educators and parents, we want to do what’s best for our children. If you look at the work of the classrooms in our district every day, you’ll see evidence of Hattie’s positive influences on student achievement alive in lesson after lesson, interaction after interaction.
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