Last summer, Rebekah Robinson was called into her son Amari Jacob's charter school, Kings Collegiate in New York City, to meet with a counselor about Amari's grades. The good news was Amari had passed the state tests in math and reading. The bad news was his teachers thought he should repeat fifth grade anyway.
Robinson, a 43-year-old mother of two from Saint Lucia, knew the school in her neighborhood would have promoted her son to the next grade. But she was pleased the charter school was so strict. Although Amari was good at math and science, he'd struggled with reading since fourth grade, when he had attended his neighborhood school in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. "He could have gone on, but in his school work, we thought he was just not ready," Robinson says.
Uncommon Schools, which runs Kings Collegiate, and the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) are among the more prominent charter-school networks that avoid "social promotion," the practice of passing low-performing students to the next grade in order to keep them with their peers. Charter schools, which educate 1.5 million students, have been set up as an alternative to the regular public schools. Although they are public, they are run by private organizations, which are required to be nonprofit in most states. The schools are given free rein to experiment with policies like longer school days in exchange for tougher accountability -- districts can shut down charters if the schools' test scores are too low. In keeping with their focus on rigorous academics and accountability, many charter schools have adopted strict "retention" policies requiring struggling students to repeat a grade when they don't meet expectations, sometimes even if they're just a point shy of passing. Amari's experience has become common in some of the highest-performing charter schools across the country.
Charter-school advocates say this allows them to help students who are far below grade level to catch up. It may also give charters an edge over regular public schools on test scores. Even so, retention policies have gotten little attention in the debate over whether to expand the number of charters, although strict student-retention policies flout the education research. Studies have found that in the long term, students who are held back in middle or high school learn less and are more likely to drop out.
Although there are no national statistics tracking the percentage of students held back in charters, there is evidence that the number is large. Schools in charter hotspots like New York and Houston report retention rates as high as 23 percent, much higher than the district averages, which range from 1 percent to 4 percent. Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, which conducted a major national study on charter-school performance, says she's observed that charter schools tend to hold students back at higher rates than regular public schools. And a recent national study by Mathematica, a research firm based in Princeton, New Jersey, found that a sample of KIPP middle schools, the biggest charter network in the country, had a significantly higher retention rate than traditional public schools.
Charters didn't invent the idea of ending social promotion, an education-reform fad that caught on in several major cities in the 1990s. Chicago was seen as a pioneer when it implemented a strict retention policy in 1996. In 1999, Texas followed suit, passing a law proposed by then-Gov. George W. Bush to ban social promotion. Five years later, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has embraced charter schools and borrowed heavily from their philosophy in his reforms of the school system, made a show of cracking down on social promotion in the third grade, the first year students take state tests. But by the time Bloomberg was embracing these ideas in New York (and ignoring heated opposition), school officials in Chicago and Texas were starting to back away from their retention policies because, officials said, holding back students was contributing to higher dropout rates.
Even though research in New York City led to similar conclusions -- students who were old for their grade level were at much greater risk of dropping out -- Bloomberg kept the stricter retention policy intact and even expanded it to other grades. City officials defend the policy, noting that the overall dropout rate has fallen. And the city's retention rates are still much lower than those of charters: At 31 charter schools that reported their retention rates in the 2008-2009 school year, 16 percent of the sixth-grade class was held back. Compare that to non-charter public schools, where only 1 percent of seventh- and eighth-graders were held back. (New York City did not end social promotion for sixth-graders until the 2009-2010 school year.)
High retention rates can help to boost test scores at charter schools, at least in the short term. Students may do better on tests the second time, and retained students' scores are dropped from their cohort, so a class of students could improve its test scores over time because the lowest performers have been removed. And sometimes low performers simply leave the charter school when they find out they're going to be held back.
While retention may help schools look better, the price may be students' long-term success. Nick Montgomery, a senior research analyst at the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which conducted a long-term study of retention policies, says his team found that students who were held back after elementary school were more likely to drop out later on. In addition, Montgomery says, "students who repeat grades during middle school learn somewhat less than their [low-performing] peers who don't repeat."
Even some charter-school leaders admit that it's unclear if the policy will help or hurt their students in the long term. The research on social promotion has focused on traditional schools, not charters. It could be that charters handle retention better. But even if they do, the prevalence of strict retention policies at charters puts a kink in the positive reports on their performance. Are high-scoring charters lifting student achievement significantly, or is retaining students helping the schools engineer better test scores?
Politicians like Bloomberg and even President Barack Obama have staked their reputations as education reformers on the promise of charters to erase the achievement gap. But, says Brian Gill, a researcher at Mathematica who co-authored the KIPP study, "We don't know if these kids will end up better off or worse off."
Robinson began her search for a charter school after Amari's grades started to slip in fourth grade. She had heard about charter schools from another parent, who told her they had higher test scores and tighter discipline -- a quality that Robinson, who as a child attended schools with strict rules in Saint Lucia, appreciated. She began searching for charters near her apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Although there are more than three dozen charters in Brooklyn and Robinson applied to several, Amari wasn't accepted by any of them. The jostling for spots at charter schools in New York City is intense, with most schools holding lotteries for slots. Like Robinson, many desperate parents see charters as the only escape from their neighborhood's dismal public schools. Robinson was relentless. She called the schools every day to check Amari's status on the waiting lists. Finally, two days after school started, Kings, a middle school that begins with fifth grade, called to say they had room for Amari. Robinson enrolled him immediately.
Despite the popularity of charter schools among politicians and parents, the data show mixed results. A recent national study of charter-school performance by Mathematica reiterated past findings that, in the aggregate, charter-school students fare no better than those in regular public schools. But that study also found that charters serving disadvantaged populations have a positive impact on test scores. Obama, who has aggressively pushed states to open more charters, has emphasized that he's only interested in replicating the "good" charters, not the bad ones.
The charter schools defined as "good" -- at least as measured by standardized test scores -- tend to be those with high retention rates. But if, as Obama is demanding, a school's worth is measured by how many of its students are prepared for and go on to college, then it's much harder to tell how charters are doing. KIPP reports high college-going rates among its students, as do a handful of other charters. But at some charters, students who leave the school, as students who are retained often do, are not counted toward graduation rates. (KIPP leaders say they track even students who leave.) For charter schools nationally, there is virtually no data on long-term outcomes for students.
Based on tests, Kings Collegiate would certainly be counted among the good charter schools. Nearly all of the students at Kings are black or Hispanic. In 2009, the percentage of Kings students passing state tests was in the 90s -- significantly higher than the statewide average. The only area in which the school faltered was in fifth-grade reading, where only 74 percent of students were proficient. That's the test Amari passed. But Kings demands "mastery," meaning students must both pass the test and score at least a 70 in all of their classes. "If a student hasn't mastered their times tables, they can't be promoted no matter how unfortunate the idea of holding back students is," says Brett Peiser, managing director of Uncommon Schools in New York City. "We're very up-front with families about that possibility happening." To Rebekah Robinson, the policy made sense. "He knew the work, but he was still struggling," she says of her son. And because one out of five fifth-graders at Kings was held back in 2009, Robinson says, "I didn't feel bad."
Democracy Prep Harlem, the first school in a new network that plans to open more schools in New York and Rhode Island, is a charter that subscribes to the "no excuses" principle common at charters, meaning everyone, from students and parents on up, is held accountable for their performance and must pay consequences if they don't measure up. Unlike many charters, Democracy Prep, a middle and high school, has an outsized population of special-education students. Seth Andrew, the school's founder, says students at the school are far behind when they arrive in sixth grade. Last year, more than 20 percent of the sixth-grade class was held back. "The reason that charters exist is to help remediate for traditional public schools that are not teaching students to read, write, or do math, and that's not a one-year job," he says.
Charter-school leaders say that students often repeat the last grade they completed in public school. But Raymond, the Stanford researcher, says that more students are held back after they've already spent at least a year at the charter. "We've analyzed whether kids are held back when they come into the school, or whether the retention happens later on," Raymond says. "It turns out that it's later."
Raymond has also looked at whether students who repeat a grade at a charter do better than students who repeat in regular public schools. With a few exceptions, the performance of retained students is the same in both settings -- that is, students who are held back don't do better because they attend a charter. In Louisiana and Washington, D.C., charter students who are retained do worse on math and reading tests than their traditional-school counterparts. (In New Orleans, the regular public schools actually have a higher retention rate, but they also educate more special-education students than the charters.)
When students repeat a grade, they are taught, often by the same teachers, the same material that stumped them before. Charter schools frequently offer extras that regular schools may not, including Saturday classes. But the Chicago research found that simple repetition is not enough -- students who are struggling to understand their coursework generally need more intensive interventions, not just a do-over. Retention brings other problems, too. Researchers have written about the psychological impact of separating students from their age group. It can be hard on the retained students, but also on teachers and younger students. They may have to contend with kids who are 15 and 16 years old in middle school and who may have behavioral problems in addition to their academic issues. At the same time, students who are retained are by nature already struggling and more likely to be disengaged with school. Being held back can increase their frustration by moving back the finishing line of graduation and, in the words of the Chicago Consortium researchers, making it seem less "worthwhile to continue."
Nyeesha Hill, a student at Democracy Prep, had to repeat sixth grade at the school. Nyeesha is one of 12 siblings and lives with her grandparents in a lower-income section of Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan. She was held back in first grade -- because of behavior issues, she says -- so she was already old for her grade when she was chosen in a lottery to attend Democracy Prep. She struggled at the charter school and was assigned to summer school to improve her grades in three classes -- global history, writing, and math. She ultimately failed one of the classes, so under Democracy Prep's retention policy, she had to repeat the grade. "In the second year, I raised my hand for help and participated more. It helped me," she says. "It's a second chance."
But Nyeesha faltered again, and she will have to repeat eighth grade this year. She has pressed her grandparents to let her attend an alternative high school, where she hopes she can join peers who are her age and graduate faster. "I'm going to be 16 this year, and I feel like I shouldn't be in that school," she says of Democracy Prep. "I don't want to go back." Most of her classmates will only be 13 or 14 years old. Her grandfather, Duely Adolphus, shares her frustration. "I was under the assumption that by going to that school that she would be getting her high school diploma," he says. "I have really high regard for the school. I don't know why she can't move from that grade. Maybe Nyeesha isn't motivated."
School leaders say that the higher attrition rates at charter schools are due, in part, to their retention polices: Students who are held back often return to regular public schools where looser academic standards allow them to move up with their peers. A 2004 study of charter schools in Arizona by the conservative Goldwater Institute found that charter-school students were significantly more likely than traditional-school students to switch schools if they were going to be held back. Andrew says Democracy Prep lost about half of the eighth-graders it planned to retain. (Around 15 percent of the eighth-grade class is held back each year.) At Kings Collegiate, the attrition rate ranges between 15 percent and 18 percent for all grade levels, school leaders say.
The high transfer rates leave charters open to the criticism that they're forcing out the lowest-performing students. Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University researcher who studies charter schools, says the retention policies of charter schools may sound good, but they "could be a mechanism to have the weaker kids go back to traditional public schools."
But Raymond says her studies have found that students who leave a school rather than be retained are less likely to be minorities or on free or reduced-price lunch, suggesting that it's the more affluent parents who worry about the stigma of repeating a grade. And charter-school leaders say they work hard to hold on to students whom they want to retain. That's why Kings Collegiate tries to hold back students only in the early grades, Peiser says. "They're more likely to stay with us," he says. Andrew, at Democracy Prep, says his school has an incentive to keep the students it wants to retain because they're the ones who make the most progress -- and New York City relies heavily on student progress on state tests to evaluate schools.
During his second attempt at fifth grade at Kings Collegiate, Amari says his schoolwork "was like a breeze." By the end of the year, he was making 80s and 90s, including in reading. He also did well on the state tests.
Every year, local papers in New York City compare the test scores of students in the city's charter schools to those of students in regular public schools, and charter schools usually come out ahead. But Gill, the Mathematica researcher, notes that "a kid who is taking the test for a second time around is likely to do better than the first time around," giving charters an advantage in each year's media contest.
Retention rates also affect the outcome of more sophisticated analyses. Students who are held back are typically a school's worst performers, but often such students can't be counted in studies. For the Mathematica study that found KIPP students outperformed regular public-school students, Gill says he and his co-authors had to estimate the performance of students who'd been held back so as not to have missing data.
Sean Reardon, a professor of education at Stanford who specializes in statistical methods, consulted on a study of student achievement in KIPP middle schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. The researchers encountered a problem, however: Many students who started at the schools in fifth grade didn't reach eighth grade within three years because they'd either moved to another school or repeated a year, making longitudinal measurements difficult. "Studies that don't deal with this carefully should be suspect," Reardon says. "They run the risk of producing estimates that make charter schools look better than the other schools."
Some charter schools have rejected strict retention policies. Elise Darwish, the chief academic officer of Aspire Charter Schools in California, says her network advises against holding students back because "kids don't do better the second year."
Elliott Witney, the principal of the first KIPP school in Houston, says the network doesn't have a national policy on retention. Instead, he says, schools base retention decisions on a range of data points about a student -- from behavior to test scores to "grit." He says his school also lets parents make the final decision about whether their child is held back. About 11 percent of eighth-graders at his school are held back at some point, Witney says, a figure that is high compared to other Houston schools. "The phrase we constantly use with kids is 'it's not a race,'" Witney says. "Colleges don't care what age you are; they only care what you know."
For now, researchers can only speculate about the consequences of charter-retention policies. It's possible that the rigorous academic culture, along with the fact that retention is so common in many charter schools, could ameliorate the problems normally associated with holding kids back. "I think that we need to look at retention in charters differently than we do retention in large systems," says Nelson Smith, a senior adviser to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Robinson says she doesn't regret the decision to have her son repeat fifth grade. Amari, now a gangly 12-year-old with braces, is excited and confident about entering sixth grade this fall. He is due to graduate in 2017, and he's determined not to be held back again. If Amari succeeds and goes on to college, it may be because he was given a second chance to catch up with his peers. But it may also be that he beat the odds stacked against him when he was held back.