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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Some students and parents want to repeat lost school year, but school leaders oppose it

Jami Entwistle wants her son, Lukas, who has been diagnosed with autism, to repeat sixth grade.
Jami Entwistle wants her son, Lukas, who has been diagnosed with autism, to repeat sixth grade.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

The Great Divide is an investigative team that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.

Vivian Kargbo wants a do-over for her daughter.

Her 14-year-old failed all of her classes this year after spending her days chatting online with friends instead of paying attention on Zoom to her teachers at Boston’s John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science.

As a working single mother, Kargbo looked for other ways to help her get one-on-one support, such as online tutoring, but nothing helped. While “heartbroken,” Kargbo agreed with the school’s decision to have her repeat the grade.

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But later, the campus reversed course, due to a new district policy discouraging educators from retaining students this year. Despite the failed courses, Kargbo’s daughter would be promoted.

“How can she go to ninth grade if she didn’t really do eighth grade?” Kargbo said.

Like Kargbo, many parents and students are declaring this a lost year. Schools are expected to design strategies for making up for missed class time, but many administrators are discouraging the very thing some students and parents want — a do-over. Kargbo wants the school to hold back her daughter, but doesn’t feel like she has that option.

Educators point to research showing retention can harm students, especially older ones. But parents, advocates, and researchers say that this year was anything but typical, and that schools should consider the potential harm in advancing students who aren’t academically ready.

“This has been very different than anything else any of us have been through,” said Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative Washington, D.C.-based education policy think tank focused on accountability. “For some kids having a fresh start is gonna make sense. . . . We should be willing to listen to parents on this one.”

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Jami Entwistle’s sixth-grade son, Lukas, complains he can’t do long division, a skill typically learned in fourth grade. The 12-year-old, who has autism, made little progress in math — or any other subjects — since last year when the pandemic forced schools online.

Lukas attends elementary school in Methuen and didn’t tolerate remote learning. Faced with Zoom classes, he grew angry and depressed, and refused to log in. He missed all remote classes from March through June. In the fall, when his district welcomed back students with special needs for in-person learning, Lukas wasn’t eligible since his school, according to Entwistle, didn’t consider his diagnosis of anxiety and ADHD enough to warrant special education services. (He only recently was diagnosed with autism.)

Lukas Entwistle, a Methuen sixth-grader, had difficulty with remote learning.
Lukas Entwistle, a Methuen sixth-grader, had difficulty with remote learning.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Now that school is almost over, Entwistle plans to ask her son’s school to hold him back, but doesn’t think they’ll allow it.

“I don’t feel comfortable with him going on to the next grade level,” she said.

Student attendance patterns demonstrate just how many students, like Lukas, were disconnected from school. Chronic absenteeism — the percentage of students who missed more than 10 percent of the school year — spiked from Fall River to Rockland to Woburn.

Chronic absenteeism across districts was higher for students in special education and students learning English, two groups with distinct challenges accessing remote learning. For economically disadvantaged students, 30 percent missed at least a tenth of the school year, up 8 percentage points from the previous year. Three out of 10 English learners missed 10 percent or more of the school year, up from 20 percent the year before. Statewide it rose to 26 percent for students with disabilities, up 6 percentage points from the previous year.

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Truancy often translates into significant learning gaps and increased risk of dropping out. And with levels now so high, many thousands of students around the state will need to make up for lost learning time. The state has discouraged schools from retaining students because of research showing it can increase the risks of social or emotional difficulty and the odds of leaving school for good.

Instead, it has tasked campuses with providing summer school, “learning academies” during vacation breaks, and tutoring during the year.

“The goal is and should be to try and make up as much as possible for what students haven’t learned,” said state Representative Alice Peisch, who cochairs the State House’s joint education committee. “But first we need to determine the extent of the loss.”

Students this spring are taking the state’s standardized test, MCAS, with results expected in the fall. Repeating a grade “isn’t as helpful as one might think,” she said. “I’d be inclined to wait and see what the districts come up with to address these gaps.”

But Peisch also acknowledged the challenge ahead for districts to create “high quality programs” and identify the students who need them most. “My guess is we’ll be dealing with this for some time,” she said.

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However, some students may not have much time to waste.

Chelsea High School junior Juan Sanchez kept up with his online classes through December. But then, in January, he lost the motivation to sit at his computer. He skipped one assignment, then another. Soon, he had missed an entire month of schoolwork. “I stopped liking school,” he said.

Sanchez wants to be the first person in his family to attend college, where he dreams of studying to be a special education teacher. But he fears this year, which was spent mostly online, will hurt his chances of getting into school and paying for it. He wants the ability to do it over again. “I would get more attention from my teachers,” he said. “And get my grades up.”

Despite some local and statewide efforts to give parents and students the option to repeat the year, most districts appear to be following the state guidance to not retain students.

Boston’s policy explicitly prohibits retaining any students in kindergarten and does away with the old requirements that students pass certain core classes and tests to go onto the next grade. Instead, teachers are to assign “mastery tasks” to students who are on the verge of being retained. If they can’t show mastery, only then should they be held back.

While research on the impact of retention in younger grades has shown mixed results, there is some evidence that for older students it can be harmful. Still, the research “may not be applicable to this current situation,” said Paco Martorell, associate professor of education at University of California Davis, who investigates the impacts of retention.

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“It’s one thing if students didn’t master the materials to do well enough on the test to be promoted to the next grade,” said Martorell. “It’s a different thing if a student just hasn’t really had third grade, effectively.”

Furthermore, he added, the students might not experience the same stigma that sometimes comes with being held back and might not see the same disruption to their social lives, since they’ve been out of school for so long.

The push to promote students may have as much to do with logistics and cost as it does with the perceived dangers of holding students back. “It would cost money and complicate enrollment,” said Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, a mayoral candidate, who chairs the council’s education committee and sponsored a resolution asking Boston to formulate a policy allowing students to repeat the year. “But we can’t say, ‘Oh, it’s too hard. We’re not going to do it’ . . . This [experience] is really going to set kids back.”


Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.