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parents and education

Isabella Paul, 8, a student at St. Joseph Catholic School in Gananoque, Ont., has an individual education plan to allow her to stay in a grade with her peers while getting academic support.Lars Hagberg/The Globe and Mail

When eight-year-old Sophie Skogster fell behind her Canadian classmates, her parents, try as they might, could not convince school administrators to "fail" their daughter.

In 2009, the Skogster family moved to Finland, home to one of the highest-ranked education systems in the world. There, Sophie studied at a Grade 1 level, a grade behind where she would have been in Canada – an accommodation that was made because she was studying in Finnish, not English.

When they returned to Canada, Sophie returned to Grade 3, but anxiety attacks caused her to miss a lot of school. Shortly after that, she broke her leg while riding her bike. Sophie's class was on the second floor and the school's elevator was unreliable, so she spent a lot of time in the library with a teacher's assistant. "She had a one-two-three punch," says her father, Aapo Skogster.

There were a lot of tears and frustration. "I would be up very late at night trying to do homework, falling asleep at the dining room table. I'd get upset in school because I didn't understand anything," says Sophie.

Eventually, her parents yanked her out of her school in New Westminster, B.C., and moved her to a new district in a lower grade; that was three years ago. Now 13, Sophie is the oldest child in her Grade 7 class. She says she's less stressed and succeeding in school. "She was exactly the kind of kid who needed to be held back," says Mr. Skogster.

The Skogster family says they don't regret their decision and any social impacts on their daughter have been minimized by playing soccer with girls her age.

While it might have been the right move for Sophie, holding students back is no longer common practice.

Until recently, grade retention was an accepted remedial education tool. Research now indicates that students who are held back are more likely to have anxiety, low self-esteem and behavioural problems than students of similar abilities who are not held back. One recent U.S. study suggests that students who were retained in elementary school were 60 per cent less likely to graduate high school.

"We don't retain students because we don't think it's in their educational interests to do so," says Janet Grant, associate superintendent of School District No. 40 (New Westminster).

There are options available for students who need support to stay in their age-group's grade.

For instance, at St. Joseph Catholic School in Gananoque, Ont., eight-year-old Isabella Paul works with a scribe, a sort of teaching assistant or volunteer who helps her with reading and writing.

"Getting words onto paper, she gets flustered. She'll think of a word like 'would' and if she can't figure out how to spell it, she'll stop," says Isabella's mother, Valerie Winn Paul. Her scribe encourages her to keep writing; it was identified as a necessary accommodation after a learning needs assessment and is part of Isabella's individual education plan.

An individual education plan outlines students' academic strengths and weaknesses. It lists learning disabilities and accommodations for that child. Teachers, assistants, volunteers and special-education staff reference the chart to meet the learning needs of each child.

In the past, Isabella might have been a candidate for grade retention, but at St. Joseph's School in the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario, students are rarely held back. The district doesn't have a specific anti-retention policy. Their low retention rates are a side effect of progressive assessment practices, according to Donaleen Hawes, the school board's superintendent of school effectiveness.

"If you raise the bar out of reach for a child, they're going to fail. You want to keep raising that bar, but to a point where kids can keep reaching it, and then you move it up," says Dr. Hawes of the district's assessment philosophy.

Isabella's reading and writing skills are still assessed as "needing improvement," but she has come a long way. This year she is being assessed at the same grade level as her peers.

Critics of social promotion say that a classroom of students with varying levels of competency is hard on teachers, stretches school resources and leaves children without the attention they need.

Administrators in the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario say they don't require extra resources to manage individual learning plans. Instead, they say resources have been reallocated and pedagogy adjusted to facilitate students' needs.

The shift toward promotion and individualized learning is the right move, says Charles Pascal, professor at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and former Ontario deputy minister of education. "I would say that retention as a past practice was basically a function of bad education. There wasn't enough attention given to the progress of kids and their individual differences."

Sophie and Isabella have a lot in common: Both love swimming and being outside, and are stars on the soccer field. Both girls have parents who are highly engaged in their education and learning progress. But like every child, their academic profiles are as unique as their thumbprints.

It's because of that individuality that most provincial education authorities say retention and promotion decisions are best left to school districts, teachers and parents.

So most Canadian children are not failing any more. According to Dr. Pascal, the move is in the right direction, as long as teachers are supported so that they can support their students.

"The flip side is promoting students where there's evidence that they're not doing well and they don't have an action plan to provide support so that they will do well. That's awful and that's just as bad as holding kids back," Dr. Pascal says.

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