• by Adela Solís, Ph.D., and Anna Alicia Romero  • IDRA Newsletter • October 2005

Anna Alicia RomeroAdela SolisIt is a Saturday afternoon in August, and neighborhood stores are buzzing as weary parents and excited youngsters shop for the niftiest backpacks and school supplies. It is refreshing to experience first-hand the genuine optimism of children about school.

In the meantime, in schools across Texas, administrators and teachers are examining results of the summer administration of third-grade and fifth-grade Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). These grade-level outcomes have special significance, most importantly to students, as a result of legislation passed by the 76th Legislature in 1999 that enacted the Student Success Initiative and its grade advancement testing requirements.

What is the Student Success Initiative?

During the last 20 years, the nation has seen increased emphasis on standardized exams tied to increased standards to address the educational malpractice of graduating students who could barely read, write or perform necessary math skills. In that vein, Texas followed suit by updating its state curriculum to what is now the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) accompanied by the TAKS. Texas then ratcheted up the stakes, appropriately holding schools accountable for specific results in several categories and inappropriately holding students accountable for performance on a single test.

Briefly, the course of actions that occur during the school year around Student Success Initiative requirements look like this:

  • Third-grade students must pass the reading TAKS to be promoted. Fifth-grade students must pass the math and reading TAKS to be promoted.
  • Students taking the TAKS have three opportunities to pass the exam in the spring and summer of that school year.
  • Intensive academic support is available.
  • A grade placement committee, which includes the parent(s), is created for the student after failing a test a second time.
  • The grade placement committee creates an instructional plan based on need and offers intensive help after each test.
  • After the third failure on one or both tests, the retention option is activated.
  • Parents may appeal the retention decision following specific steps within given timelines.
  • The grade placement committee must have a unanimous decision to support promotion to the next grade.

The TAKS is available in Spanish for English language learners who are in bilingual programs in the third and eighth grades.

Essence of the Initiative is In-grade Retention

Beginning in 2002-03, third-grade students were required to pass the TAKS reading exam as a condition passing to the fourth grade. Two years later, fifth-grade students were required to pass the TAKS reading and math tests in order to pass to the sixth grade. And in 2007-08, eighth-grade students also will have to pass the TAKS reading and math exams before they can be promoted to the ninth grade.

In passing the law, legislators had academic proficiency and graduation in mind, but by making in-grade retention the centerpiece of the initiative, the chances for student success were weakened rather than strengthened.

School Holding Power and In-Grade Retention

The practice of retention in-grade is particularly detrimental to school completion and graduation. The educational and scientific literature of the past 30 years clearly delineates the negative effects of in-grade retention. IDRA’s early studies on retention show that minority students are retained more often than White students; that repeating a grade usually does not increase achievement; and that once students have been held back, the achievement gap between them and other students never closes (Supik and Johnson, 1999).

IDRA’s work also has shown that a strong correlation exists between in-grade retention and dropping out of school, has documented the emotional and financial costs of requiring children to repeat the same grade, and has enumerated alternatives to in-grade retention (McCollum, et al., 1999; Cárdenas, 1991).

Other investigations have confirmed IDRA’s findings and observed additional effects. Specifically, the Texas approach to testing and the consequences have been studied. The pre-cursor to the TAKS, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), has been closely examined and analyzed: “There was a sharp upturn in numbers of young people taking the GED tests in Texas in the mid-1990s to avoid TAAS” (Haney, 2000).

A more recent study on in-grade retention examined specifically the relationship between retention and dropping out of school (Jimerson, et al., 2002). The researchers examined studies from 1972 to 1999 with respect to impact on dropping out. Their findings are summarized in the box above.

Education researchers are joined by other scientists when they assert: “Tests, when used properly, are among the most sound and objective ways to measure student performance. But, when test results are used inappropriately or as a single measure of performance, they can have unintended adverse consequences” (American Psychology Association, 2001).

Nevertheless, what is in the best interest of children is not always incorporated into good teaching practice or even good public policy. Note that, even with evidence of an adverse impact on public school students, Texas’ testing practices were incorporated into the national education plan, No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law in 2002.

Furthermore, Texas policymakers have recently considered expanding test-retention policies to include 13 standardized end-of-course exams. In their proposals, regardless of the student’s grade in the subject area, he or she would have to pass the end-of-course test or fail the class (Cortez and Romero, 2005).

Accessing Information on Student Success Initiative

Though well intentioned, the Student Success Initiative promotes some unsound educational practices. Fortunately, the law does contain provisions that, if applied appropriately, can prevent students from being retained. The plan also strongly recommends building partnerships among schools, parents and community to help implement its requirements.

Thus because of its far-reaching and profound consequences, it is critical that all stakeholders, especially parents of public school children, be well versed about the Student Success Initiative and work hard so that their children do not fall prey to unsound educational practices.

The Texas Education Agency is charged with implementing the Student Success Initiative and plays a role in educating parents. Through a web site, the agency offers information and resources for schools and parents (https://tea.texas.gov/student.assessment/). Some of the material is also in Spanish. Information on the web site includes:

  • Flowcharts of TAKS-taking and decision-making process for third grade and fifth grade. This area describes the process and timelines for test taking, related decision making, and parent notification.
  • Grade placement committee manual that details the specific roles and tasks of the committee, which is convened when a student does not pass a second administration of the test.
  • Sample letters to parents in English and Spanish that the schools may adapt for local use in which required information about testing, passing/test success, school services and parent options are described. (Parent notification is mandatory.)
  • Brochure for parents in English and Spanish for third grade and fifth grade that describes what the Student Success Initiative is and delineates steps parents can take to help their children pass the TAKS.
  • Student Success Initiative requirements and process flowcharts for special education that describe the initiative as it pertains to children in special education.
  • The rules and laws regarding the initiative.

Although some of the information on the web site is intended for parents, this web-based resource may not be accessible to them. It is then critical for schools to assume a role in helping parents navigate these very important tasks.

School Districts’ Role in Informing and Working with Parents

School districts play a key role in helping parents make the best decisions to ensure that children in danger of being retained are treated equitably and given the opportunity to be truly successful in school.

The contents of TEA web site, in fact, are explicitly offered to school districts for them to download, edit and put the information to use at the local level. Thus, it is really in the hands of school districts and schools to integrate parents into the schools’ efforts to help students succeed.

IDRA previously has pointed out that the local schools, teachers and parents best know their students and what academic decisions are best for them. In the context of the Student Success Initiative, schools, parents and community should indeed be working together, not just for TAKS success, but to avoid ineffective retention.

Instead of retention, students having trouble need intensive instruction presented to them in a way that they will understand. But parents will not know how to best support their children and what choices are available if they are uninformed and disenfranchised. Schools should be the bridge between what the state mandates and what parents need to know.

Achieving student success requires working effectively with parents. Further, school action should be based on the broader literature on in-grade retention and should be pro-active in helping parents support their child’s learning.

An important part of the law is that it permits the parent to make choices about retention, whether or not the child is successful in the TAKS. To date, this option does not seem to be evident to parents. The key to parents exercising this option is having the right information and guidance. Central to this is the school’s role and its approach to working with parents.

After three years of the Student Success Initiative, sufficient interaction has occurred between schools and parents about the initiative to generate some good examples and some bad examples of school-parent involvement in this effort.

As a result of the work that the IDRA South Central Collaborative for Equity has conducted with parents of minority children, some pertinent issues have surfaced around the initiative. Essentially, parents seem overwhelmed with the volume of information and confused about what is required. Some feel inadequate because their English skills limit what they can grasp at meetings. Most importantly, they are greatly distressed to observe the effects that test failure and the prospects of retention are having on their children.

Here are some questions they are asking: “What will I miss if I can’t go to that meeting?” “What is in that thick folder?” “My child brings As and Bs in the report card but fails the TAKS. How can that be?” “My boy is sick about the prospects of repeating fifth grade. What can I do?” “Is changing schools the only answer to avoid retention?”

The Stakeholder Parent Taking Action

Parents want what is best for their children. When routinely speaking to parents around the state through the IDRA Parent Information and Resource Center, we repeatedly see that families have a vision for their children that includes academic excellence and abundant career possibilities. We also find that many times parents assume schools will do whatever is necessary for all children to master coursework necessary for graduation.

The key for schools to work in true partnership with parents is, first of all, to realize that parent backgrounds vary and thus using a one-size-fits-all mode of information sharing will not work. Second, it is important that all pertinent information on instructional alternatives and parent options be shared exactly as required by law. And third, the information must be accurately interpreted and summarized for parents. Transparency and honesty in disclosure is critical to an effective partnership of parents and the school.


The goal of the Student Success Initiative is to ensure that all students receive the instruction and support they need to be academically successful in reading and math. Yet, it is the student who bears the burden for TAKS success. Worse, the consequence for failure is one of the most damaging of educational practices: in-grade retention. Because much is at stake, it is essential that schools’ interactions with parents be true partnerships.

The goal of parent action should be to help with their child’s learning. The law calls for retention, but it also provides a way to avoid it by taking specific action. The goal should be to reject practices that harm kids now, like retention in grade, to decrease the chances of children dropping out in the future.

This approach of working with students and their families for authentic academic success is the best approach. Advocating for children honors that optimism that each student has about school and about learning every new school year.

Online Sources

Student Success Initiative Web Site

Student Guide to Graduation
English: https://tea.texas.gov/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=51539608601
Spanish: https://tea.texas.gov/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=51539612909

Prepare for Success: A Parent Guide to the Student Success Initiative at Grade 3

Prepare for Success: A Parent Guide to the Student Success Initiative at Grade 5
English: https://tea.texas.gov/WorkArea/linkit.aspx?LinkIdentifier=id&ItemID=25769806938&libID=25769806941
Spanish: https://tea.texas.gov/WorkArea/linkit.aspx?LinkIdentifier=id&ItemID=25769806937&libID=25769806940

Key Findings from “Winning the Battle and Losing the War: Examining the Relation between Grade Retention and Dropping Out of High School”

  • Retention in first through third grades was a strong indicator of later dropping out.
  • Retention increases the risk of dropping out by 30 percent to 50 percent.
  • Poor classroom performance was a determinant of failure to complete school.
  • Grade retention during elementary school reduces the likelihood of pursuing post-secondary education by 85 percent.
  • Students retained once had a 69 percent dropout rate, those retained twice had a 94 percent dropout rate, compared to a 27 percent dropout rate for those never retained.
Source: Jimerson, S.R., G.E. Anderson and A.D. Whipple. “Winning the Battle and Losing the War: Examining the Relation Between Grade Retention and Dropping Out of High School,” Psychology Today (2002). (39) 4, 441-457.

Student Success Initiative ~ Glossary

In-grade retention: a policy requiring students to repeat the same grade a second time in order to master what was not learned. It is commonly known as flunking.

Grade placement committee: a committee formed after a student has not passed the second administration of the TAKS exam and consists of the principal, a teacher in the area not mastered and the parent/guardian. The GPC creates an instructional plan for the student based on the student’s needs.

Social promotion: refers to the practice of passing students who have not mastered part, or all, of the grade-level curriculum on to the next grade with other students of their age.

TAKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills): The TAKS is the statewide mandated standardized exam. It measures the statewide curriculum as follows.

TAKS Exams
reading, mathematics
reading, writing, mathematics
reading, mathematics, science
reading, mathematics
reading, writing, mathematics
reading, mathematics, social studies
reading, mathematics
English language arts, mathematics, science, social studies
English language arts, mathematics, science, social studies
The Spanish TAKS is administered in the third through sixth grades.
Satisfactory performance on the TAKS in the 11th grade is prerequisite to a high school diploma.


American Psychology Association. “Appropriate Use of High-Stakes Testing in Our Nation’s Schools,” online statement (Washington, D.C.: APA, May 2001) http://www.apa.org/pubs/info/brochures/testing.aspx.

Cárdenas, J.A. “Texas Legislature Revises Retention Policy,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, August 1991).

Cortez, A., and A.A. Romero. “The 79th Legislative Session: The Good, the Bad and the Inept,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, August 2005).

Haney, W. “The Myth of the Texas Miracle in Education,” Education Policy Analysis Archives (August 19, 2000) https://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/432/828.

Jimerson, S.R., G.E. Anderson and A.D. Whipple. “Winning the Battle and Losing the War: Examining the Relation Between Grade Retention and Dropping Out of High School,” Psychology Today (2002) (39) 4, 441-457.

McCollum, P., and A. Cortez, O.H. Maroney, F. Montes. Failing Our Children – Finding Alternatives for In-Grade Retention (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1999).

Supik, J.D., and R.L. Johnson. Missing Texas Youth – Dropout and Attrition Rates in Texas Public High Schools (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1999).

Texas Education Agency: Student Assessment Division, Student Success Initiative.

Adela Solís, Ph.D., is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Anna Alicia Romero is an education assistant in the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2005, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2005 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]