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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Overage Kids a Fixture in High School

The social divide separating freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors breaks down on the North Shore streets between Curtis and McKee high schools as students meet after school and amble together toward home. Although they say the topic of age rarely arises in conversation, nearly one in five interviewed on a recent afternoon admitted to being older at grade level than he or she should be because they had been held back in school.

The age mismatch changes the tenor of the high school experience, not only for older students, but also their younger classmates who are progressing according to schedule. Teachers, too, feel the impact, as they spend time and energy trying to convince older-age students to stay in school.

Holding poor-performing students back is not unique to New York. "There is a great deal more retention nationwide than most policy people own up to," said Jay Heubert, a professor of law and education at Columbia Teachers College.

A 1999 congressional study Heubert conducted with the National Academy of Sciences showed that, countrywide, African-American and Latino boys were held back in school at the highest rate -- 50 percent were retained at least once by the time they were teens. At the other end of the spectrum, the figure was 20 percent among white girls.

"It sounds counterintuitive, but the research has proven it over and over: Holding kids over doesn't work. Low-performing kids who are promoted do better than kids who are held back," said Heubert, pointing to New York City's retention policy of the 1980s. He claims it failed in spite of an infusion of resources to boost the performance of floundering students. "Kids who are promoted but have no special interventions still do better than kids who are held over with expensive interventions," Heubert said.

This article, written by Deborah Young, appeared in the November 12th, 2005 publication of the Staten Island Advance.

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