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To Flunk Is a Lifetime Sentence
Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC
Wednesday November 01, 2006
by: Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC

Section: Inside Insight

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As the school counselor, you have been asked by a grade-level team of teachers to sit in on a retention meeting for an underperforming second-grade student and his parents. There has been little discussion between the team, you and the parents regarding retention. However, the teachers are adamant this child should be held back. What is your role as the school counselor, and what are the ethical issues surrounding retention?

Collaboration is one of the consummate roles of a school counselor. Working with parents, teachers, administrators and community members is an essential aspect for the professional school counselors. Although collaboration skills are excellent tools to have, it is important for a professional school counselor to know the risks and benefits of decisions made in a collaborative meeting, especially those meetings involving students who are failing academically. Historically educational systems have relied on the easiest response by using in-grade retention for a failing student, despite overwhelming evidence that retention is not an effective practice. In an era of high-stakes testing, accountability and a negative view of social promotion, what are the school counselor’s responsibilities and ethical concerns when teachers or parents ask you to support retaining a student?

Retention Issues
As we look at the achievement gap and consider the inequities of many educational practices, it is important to include in-grade retention as part of that inequity. Nationally, African American and Hispanic students are more than two and one half times likely to be retained than Caucasian students. Of students held back, 60 percent are boys, implying gender inequity. Research also supports that retention is highly correlated with dropping out of school and retaining a student twice is a virtual guarantee that student will eventually drop out.

According to “Failing Our Children: Finding Alternatives to In-Grade Retention,” by Intercultural Development Research Associates, economically disadvantaged students are more likely to be retained, and special education students are retained twice as often as other students. Additionally, urban areas claim a higher retention rate than rural areas, with the largest population being minority and low socio-economic students. Another consequence for “flunking” is low self-esteem and negative academic self-concept.

At a time when the nation is focusing on high dropout rates and analyzing the achievement gap for minority students, it would seem most appropriate to evaluate the educational practice of in-grade retention, especially when there is little or no evidence supporting retention’s effectiveness. The school counselor’s influence on in-grade retention can be a powerful conduit for educational change.

As mentioned in the ASCA position statement on at-risk students, standing up for the student’s needs is a key component of student advocacy. The professional school counselor should be collaborating with parents, teachers and community agencies in addressing academic failure. Interventions, a specialty of the school counselor, should be implemented utilizing all the key players in this learning situation i.e., the teachers, administrators, parents and community agencies. These strategies should be assessed through data collection under the school counselor’s guidance. The professional school counselor provides individual student planning sessions and develops and assesses intervention strategies prior to conceding to the last resort of in-grade retention.

The ethical school counselor should evaluate if there is an established, research-based evaluation process for those students who are not academically successful. The school counselor’s ethical role is to be involved in that process or at minimum as part of the leadership team establishing the criteria for the retention policy and procedure. It is also important for school counselors to consider the ethical ramifications of any educational practice and decision making. The overriding question for the school counselor should be, “Will this intervention be academically valuable for this student and what evidence do we have supporting this?”

Things to Think About
As part of the professional ethical standards, school counselors are expected to be diligent in their professional development and be knowledgeable in areas in which they are practicing. Knowing what practices are supported by research and what practices are not educationally sound is a component of the school counselor’s ethical problem solving model. Additionally, as stated by the ASCA Ethical Standards, the professional school counselor is guided “by findings of the evaluation data in planning programs and services” for the students with whom they serve. In-grade retention may not be the best choice for the student or an educationally sound practice; however, it is an ethical responsibility of the professional school counselor to promote and provide as many educational options as possible for the students with whom they work.

Being aware of best practices and effective interventions for students is part of our ethical mandate of accountability to our students. As ethical professional school counselors, it is our role to support or promote intervention that has been proven effective and not encourage ineffective practices. Knowing what the research and data state and understanding how this influences the students with whom you work is paramount.

When interpreting a student’s evaluations and assessments and providing individual planning for the failing student, it is the school counselor’s ethical responsibility to make sure parents and students understand the ramification of any educational decisions made. Often students, as well as their parents, are unclear about the unintended consequences of such decisions. Identifying and clarifying the risks and benefits of educational choices will help the parents and students make more productive choices.

As professional school counselors, we are ethically bound to advocate for the students’ best educational interests. Through collaboration, professional school counselors can have an impact on the educational decision making, the development of strategies and implementation effective programs. All of these tasks can help students achieve academic success.

Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC, is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs and chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. She can be reached atrwilliams@uccs.edu.