Social Promotion and Student Success: What We Know

Bring up the term “social promotion” and almost everyone agrees that it is a bad idea. Most people do not want students who are failing to be passed along to the next grade level. In fact, when non-educators find out that it still happens in almost every district in the country (although there are few records, because schools don’t often report these numbers), they are shocked. While grade-to-grade advancement sounds like a straightforward process, it’s a more complicated issue than you might imagine.

Let me introduce you to Fred. He is in 8th grade and he has been struggling academically for several years. His family moved four times in the last eight years, and his single mom works two jobs to keep the family housed, clothed, and fed. After one of his family’s moves, Fred repeated the 2nd grade, and he is at least one year older than the other students in his grade. Currently, Fred is able to read on a 4th grade level and he is not passing his math class. Although he is interested in his science and social studies classes, he rarely turns in his homework. Several years ago, Fred went through the screening process to test for any learning disabilities. Although he was performing below grade level, he did not qualify for any special education services, because his IQ test (a language-based test, which has long been argued is biased against students of lower socioeconomic status) indicated that he has an IQ of 80. This is generally considered to be a low IQ (average is 100), but it is not low enough for Fred to qualify as “retarded” (the number for that varies by state, but it is generally 70 - 75). Someone with an IQ of 80 would be expected to perform below average; in other words, there is no discrepancy between Fred’s ability and Fred’s academic performance. Therefore, he does not qualify for special education services.

In most schools, Fred would probably receive extra services (such as Title I or additional support), to the extent that the school’s budget and/or partnerships with outside nonprofit organizations might allow. But should Fred repeat 8th grade? Would his academic performance or behavior improve if he were held back another year? What would be the impact on him or the other students in his class if he were now at least two years older than most of his classmates? Research has indicated that retention almost always has negative consequences, rather than positive ones, and in fact, retained students are 5 – 10 times more likely to drop out of high school. But, no one wants Fred to graduate from high school in a few years without the basic skills we believe a 12th grader should have! So what is the solution?

It is going to take a long-term approach that incorporates academic standards, teacher training, and a funding commitment. We cannot start by simply giving exit exams in 12th grade. In New York, for example, standards were phased in over several years, starting with 3rd grade. Teachers, students, and students’ families were all informed that 3rd graders would need to demonstrate proficiency in certain skills before they could move on to 4th grade. Principals were held responsible for identifying students at risk of not passing, and they were given additional resources to help accelerate those students: teacher training was provided and additional teaching staff and partnerships with outside nonprofit agencies gave those students intensive support so that, by the end of the year, the majority of those kids could successfully complete the requirements to pass to 4th grade. This same process was repeated over the next few years for 6th graders and 8th graders. Demonstrating skills does not always mean passing a standardized test, either; programs in which students produce portfolios that highlight their work and their progress (performance-based assessments) have shown extremely positive results.

There are a million Freds out there. Many of them are highly intelligent (I used Fred’s low IQ to illustrate a point about special education services), but they have not been well served by our educational system. We know that high quality early childhood education from ages birth to five is critical; we know that having high expectations for all students will help them succeed; we know that the majority of our teachers are not equipped to help their struggling students succeed. Furthermore, I have never met a parent who did not want his or her child to excel; we know that engaging parents as partners in their children’s education will help students succeed. We have the knowledge to make our schools the great equalizing force of democracy that they were once intended to be, but it will take time, money, and a concerted effort. It will take longer than the 4 – 8 years that most politicians hold office; but the rewards will last for decades to come.

This post was originially published at GoLocalProv.

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