When I spoke earlier this year to the National Association of School Psychologists, I listened to introductory remarks by Philip Lazarus, the president of the organization.

In talking about the role of school psychologists and reviewing the many problems that students have today, he mentioned that there were three things that students feared most. Number one was going blind. Number two was the death of a parent. And number three was being held back in school.

That really shook me up, because I started thinking about the deep humiliation children must feel if all their friends are promoted and they are not. Some years ago, when I was a reliable member of the conservative camp, I favored ┬ápolicies that “ended social promotion.” I thought it was wrong to promote kids to a grade where they were unable to keep up. I dispassionately observed debates between supporters and opponents; I knew that retention was associated with higher dropout rates, but back in those days, I was on the tough-accountability side. Make it harder, I thought, as conservatives do, and children will work harder and get better results. But like so much else that I used to support–like high-stakes testing and choice–I was wrong.

I wish that all policymakers could hear from school psychologists about the damage that retention does to children’s lives.

I recently came across the research that Lazarus was citing. It is a paper called “Grade Retention: Achievement and Mental Health Outcomes.” About 2.4 million children are retained every year, more boys than girls, more minorities than whites. Retained students are likely to exhibit aggressive behavior and to have a history of absenteeism and frequent moves. They are more likely to have large families, low parental education and less family involvement.

Research suggests that retention leads to minimal–if any– improvement of academic outcomes and an increase in dropping out for the retained students. The writers recognize that the increase in high-stakes testing was intended to pressure students to improve their test scores, but its main impact is to raise their stress levels. And whereas the original research on this topic in the 1980s found that children most feared going blind, losing a parent, or being flunked, a replication of the study in 2001 found that sixth grade students said that fear of being flunked was even greater than the other two terrible fears.

What are we doing to our children? I am speaking now as a parent and grandparent, not as a detached observer who looks at the issues from 30,000 feet and “sees like a state.”

Students who are retained have lower self-esteem (which must surely be lowered even more by having been branded as a failure and humiliated in front of their peers). Dropping out, as the paper recounts, is associated with a wide range of negative behaviors and outcomes that are bad for children and bad for our society.

Ultimately, holding kids back does not get them the social and emotional support they need. Instead, it aggravates the very conditions that led to their original failure.

We live in a time of social scarcity, of meanness, of meritocracy without compassion and without social concern.

“Ending social promotion,” it turns out, is just another slogan that politicians like to bandy about. It makes them feel strong; it makes them look tough; it wins plaudits from the hard-hearted tabloids; it allows the politicians to call themselves “reformers.” But it hurts children.

Ask the school psychologists. They see the children every day who are wounded and broken by these tough social policies. We must all begin to see them.

Diane