The Third-Grade Testing and Retention Policy is Damaging to Children

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By Theodore M. Shaw and Elise C. Boddie
There has been much controversy over New York City’s hastily devised third grade Testing and Retention Policy.  Under this policy, the decision to retain a Third Grade student is dictated primarily by the child’s scores on two citywide tests, English Language Arts and Mathematics.  Supporters of the policy bill it as “the end of social promotion,” pointing to the systemic failure of the City’s schools to prepare students and arguing that there are harmful consequences to promoting children who are struggling academically.  Those who oppose the policy are dismissed as being out of touch with what is happening in the City’s malfunctioning schools.  But, in reality, the choice between “social promotion” and retention is a false one:  neither is the key to reforming the educational system.  Students would fare far better if resources were invested in, among other things, early-grade intervention and smaller class sizes.
We agree that schools are failing our kids, but the question is what to do about it.  If social promotion is a problem plaguing the City’s educational system, retention promises only to make matters worse.  This may sound counterintuitive:  how can it make sense to promote a child who fails a test?  But thirty years of educational research and, indeed, the City’s own failed experience with a similar retention program over a decade ago conclusively demonstrates that retention is fundamentally bad for kids.  According to educational experts, retention, even retention in the early grades, is a significant predictor of whether a child will drop out of school even after accounting for socioeconomic factors.  Although retention may lead to short-term increases in test scores because students are a year older when taking the tests for the second time, experts uniformly agree that retention does not lead to higher achievement over the long term and, in fact, has been shown to depress achievement outcomes at certain grade levels.
There are also very serious problems with deciding to promote or retain a child primarily on the basis of a test score.  Testing experts, and even those who manufacture and market these tests, warn against using them as the sole or primary basis for decisions about a child’s educational future.  A student’s test performance can vary from day to day for reasons that have nothing to do with whether he or she knows the material.  What if he was sick or was simply having an “off” day?  It is sounder educational practice to base the decision to retain on a variety of criteria, including test scores, class work and attendance.  Although there may be circumstances in which an individual child should be held back, this decision should be left to the professional judgment of the teacher and principal and not dictated primarily by a test result for thousands of kids at a time. 
Furthermore, tests that are used to retain students must be validated for that purpose.  Validation ensures that tests actually and reliably measure the skills and knowledge that they purport to measure; that they test material that is being taught in the schools; and that the “cut score” – the passing score on the test – in fact distinguishes a passing student from one who has failed.  Flunking a child based on an invalid test makes about as much sense as firing an auto mechanic for not knowing how to cook.

Javaka Steptoe signs book for curious young reader, who wants to write like the Brooklyn author.

Finally, the harsh reality is that the burden of large-scale retention policies that are based on high-stakes tests disproportionately falls on African-American and Latino children in some of the City’s worst schools.  At the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, we know that we must demand excellence from all of our children.  We know that our children can excel if given the opportunity and the resources to learn.  We also know that retaining thousands of students who languish in dilapidated schools with outdated books and materials and few supportive services is unfair and has punitive consequences down the road.  In these circumstances, if anyone should be held accountable, it should be the schools and not these eight year olds.
Tests can be useful diagnostic tools for identifying struggling students, but they should not be relied upon as sole or primary determinants of a child’s educational future.  The bottom line is that schools should be in the business of educating students to teach them the beauty of learning.  Tests are a means to this end, not an end in themselves; and large-scale, high-stakes test driven retention policies, although they may be politically expedient, do more harm than good and are damaging to children.
Theodore M. Shaw is Director-Counsel and President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF).  Elise C. Boddie is LDF’s Director of Education.