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Widespread 'Social Promotion' Cheats Students


Q. Ten or 15 years ago, everyone was up in arms about "social promotion," the practice of sending kids on to the next grade to preserve their self-esteem, even though they hadn't really mastered that year's class content. We went along with the federal intervention and mandates from Goals 2000 and, now, No Child Left Behind, to try to stop this, since it was making so many kids so woefully unprepared for high school and college course work. No doubt we've spent untold millions of dollars on this problem. How is it coming?


Pretty badly, if a recent piece of quality news reporting is any indication. In summer 2007, the Arizona Daily Star reviewed millions of school records of more than 60,000 students for a computer-assisted investigation into the practice of social promotion in the Tucson public schools.


Their findings: one out of three students were flunking core courses, but nevertheless 90% of students were passed on to the next grade.


That's the sort of information that infuriates students, parents, teachers and employers. Everybody suffers if a student who cannot work at grade level is advanced to the next grade level despite the shortcomings. The student suffers most of all, of course, by being denied grade-level content mastery and a false idea of where he or she stands compared to other students. The practice of social promotion puts students who are at risk of dropping out even more desperately at risk, because they fall even further behind at that next grade level for which they are unprepared.


Educators claim in their defense that in some schools they are inundated with students who cannot work at grade level. They say social promotion is the only way to give themselves a chance to serve the needs of the average and high-achieving students, instead of getting bogged down with the underachievers.


But social promotion is NOT the best way to motivate and encourage a student to do better. In fact, it actually mires them deeper into academic incompetence. Holding a student back a year has been demonstrated to be a better intervention. According to education author Laurie H. Rogers (Betrayed,, grade retention actually helps more than just passing a child along for "self-esteem" reasons. She cites a 2006 study by Greene & Winter that assessed the effects of a "test-based promotion policy." The study found that two years after Florida students had been retained, they had "made significant reading gains relative to the control group of socially promoted students." The socially promoted students, meanwhile, continued to fall farther behind.


But getting the information necessary to back up a smart policy on grade retention vs. social promotion is difficult. In the Arizona research case, the newspaper had to design its own database queries to extract the information, because the nine school districts analyzed didn't have a way to report that information. In fact, they had a vested interest that it NOT be reported. District policies varied widely, which complicated the research. A number had to be assigned to each student to ensure privacy as well as to make sure year-by-year data collection would be correct.


In addition to the difficulty getting the data, there's the intertwining of other "social engineering" policies at work within school districts that can make it difficult to get at the root causes of academic underachievement. Social promotion, for example, goes hand-in-hand with grade inflation. The Arizona reporters found that was rampant, too, by comparing individual students' grades with their scores on standardized tests in the same subject areas.


They used software that helped them map trends such as how often students failed classes each year, where they were geographically located, how many students failed more than one course every semester, and grouping and sorting the data to compare it to the school-by-school retention rates.


The report found that non-English speaking students, or English Language Learners, made up a relatively small percentage of the students who were promoted to the next grade probably improperly.


If this reportage were duplicated across the country, and results were similar, it might spark a revolutionary outcry for school choice to allow parents to put their kids in schools which do not do this. Public awareness of the damage that social promotion does also might help end federal intervention in schools that might be increasing the practice. And a public outcry might finally give educators who are practicing social promotion under the radar serious "dis-incentives" so that they'll quit doing it.



Homework: The Arizona Daily Star's reports are on


By Susan Darst Williams Controversies 03 2008

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