The new shoes have been bought, the blue jeans fitted and the pencils sharpened. The back-to-school sales are yesterday's news.

The last of Utah's 441,700 schoolchildren will return to the classroom Tuesday.But not every child skips back to school with eagerness and enthusiasm. For those who struggle academically, school can be synonymous with frustration and failure.

In the past, educators believed that students whose academic performance wasn't up to par needed an extra year to mature or to absorb the material.

Students who failed to meet standards "flunked" and were "held back," forced to repeat a grade. These students are the exception today.

The thinking in Utah - and across the nation - is that a student, regardless of his academic performance, should be promoted with his peers - a trend labeled "social promotion" - instead of being required to repeat a grade.

Statistics about retention are hard to come by. The Utah State Office of Education does not keep statewide retention figures.

Most school district officials report that retention figures are kept at the school, not at the central office.

However, one district, Jordan, does keep centralized statistics, and the numbers indicate how few students in that district are forced to repeat a grade.

Last year, only 49 of the district's 64,000 students were retained. Most of the retained students were in the early elementary grades.

Nationally, there are no definitive figures on retention.

Holding children back - retention - is only part of a larger family of programs aimed at ensuring that every child learns what is necessary to function in an adult role.

If retention is not the answer to academic failure, what is? Is it preferable to continue to pass a child from grade to grade without ever requiring him to show he has assimilated the materials on which the succeeding grade's classwork is based? What is the best way to remedy the student's deficiencies? Even the age at which a child starts school affects his ability to keep up with peers.

The debate over the value of retention has raged among educators for years, but the new trend against it leans on a growing body of research. That research says that, in the long run, retention doesn't produce a better student and may even by psychologically and socially harmful to the child.

A child who is held back may get stuck with labels that are hard to shake - "slow learner" from the educational establishment, "dummy" by his friends. His self-esteem plummets.

"It seems that failure breeds failure. We do everything possible to help a child be successful. We don't want to put on a brand from which he can never escape," said Jordan District spokeswoman Patty Dahl.

Added McKell Withers, Granite associate director of student services, "The overuse of retention can have a devastating effect on the life of the child involved."

Among research findings on effects of retention:

- An Arizona State University study states children who are held back don't catch up but fall further behind their peers - academically, socially and emotionally.

- A University of Georgia study reports children who repeat a grade do no better than their peers who proceeded to the next grade.

- A 1989 study, by researchers Lorrie A. Shepard, University of Colorado, and Mary Lee Smith, Arizona State University, maintains that students who repeat a grade are more likely to drop out of school.

- In a 1984 study, 6-to 9-year old children rated repeating a grade as the third most stressful event they could face. Only losing a parent or going blind were considered more stressful by the children.

Two years ago, a Salt Lake School District committee, charged with overhauling the district's retention policy, reviewed all of the research on the effects of retention.

In its review, the committee found that retention is most successful in the first three years of school.

The committee concluded, however, based on its research, that any gains a student might experience during the retention soon evaporated.

The district revised its retention policy, emphasizing remediation rather than retention. Other school districts in Utah have reached the same conclusion.

Remediation is the string attached to promotion.

A variety of remedial options are available, depending upon the district and the age of the child. They range from summer school and after-school classes for secondary students to one-on-one tutoring of younger students by older students and special "resource" classes for elementary students.

The school districts say they rely on plans tailor-made to boost the academic level of each child.

"Holding back is a real cop-out. That is an easy. Meeting needs, knowing the child - now, that takes commitment from someone," said Janice Evans, Murray director of elementary education.

Dahl said the remediation approach focuses on the individual and is designed to close gaps in sequential learning. It doesn't make sense to retain a child for a whole year when he is performing poorly only in math, for example, she said.

How well does remediation work?

That's difficult to assess, because educators at the state and district levels don't keep definitive statistics about retention and remediation.

One Salt Lake intermediate school - Glendale - has had good results with a strong remediation program, but it is coupled with a no-pass, no-promote policy.

The major disadvantage to "social promotion," one teacher said, is that students know they'll be promoted whether or not they perform. Promotion is no longer a reward for good grades; it's a given.

That changes when a student reaches seventh grade, however. Under state law, passing performance is necessary to earn credits required for a high school diploma. Schools are required to provide remedial classes to achieve that objective.

The high drop-out rate in the United States - and in Utah - indicates that many students find it easier to quit than to catch up. An accumulation of several years of sub-par performance makes the task seem impossible. The result is continuing production of ill-prepared young adults, some of whom can't read employment applications or fill them out understandably, said Brent Gubler, director of the adult education program in the State Office of Education. More than 200,000 Utah adults are illiterate or subliterate.

In a few rare circumstances, the educators say, retention is the answer.

But, Evans warns, that too must be carefully designed to aid the child's learning. "It must be retention with attention. You can't just repeat the same old thing if he didn't learn it the first time."

Reading is particularly critical, said State Office of Education specialist Nancy Livingston.

"Reading will form the foundation not only for future schooling but for the quality of life. What I do in school often dictates my job, which dictates what I can do in my leisure time. The real tragedy about anyone who fails reading is that one's self-concept is so embedded in the ability to read."

*****

(ADDITIONAL INFORMATION)

Sketchy statistics

Statistics on school retention are sketchy, but there are some indications that many children, nationally and in Utah, get through school - or quit prematurely - without absorbing the fundamentals of education:

- A survey of 13 states and the District of Columbia found 6 percent - or two students in every class of 30 - had been held back.

- At Utah's nine colleges and universities, 1,900 of 60,000 full-time equivalent students - or 3.2 percent - are required to take remedial classes because they don't meet college standards.

- In 1987, 15 percent of Utah's 11th graders were reading only at eighth-grade level, according to tests based on the state's Core Curriculum.

- Approximately 20 percent of Utah's students don't complete basic schooling, and it is assumed the majority of these are less than literate.

- The 1980 census showed that approximately 50,000 Utahns over the age of 25 had fewer than nine years of schooling; 141,000 had fewer than 12 years.