The Hole in the Drive to Ban Social Promotion in School

Richard Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute

California schools are promoting children whose performance is below "grade level." But maybe not for long. Mayor Richard Riordan has demanded an end to "social promotion." Gov. Pete Wilson proposes changing the education code to prohibit advancing students who have not "achieved a passing score on a statewide assessment." L.A. school Supt. Ruben Zacarias has made social promotion's abolition a goal.

Yet, while all denounce social promotion, none has defined what grade-level performance might be. Setting a goal for average student performance is difficult enough. Setting a minimum standard is incomparably more difficult, yet this is what the "social promotion" controversy requires.

Consider these inane instructions recently issued by the state Department of Education. They define grade-level performance as standardized test scores at the 50th percentile--we "would not want to set a standard lower than the current average performance of students in the U.S." The department's goal is 90% of students meeting grade-level standards.

To do that, the rules of arithmetic first must be revised. The 50th percentile is, by definition, the score that half the nation's students exceed and half fall below. No matter how high achievement, half the students must be below grade level, defined as the 50th-percentile score.

Ninety percent of Californians can score above the nation's 50th percentile only if we have a near-monopoly of the best and brightest performers nationwide, while less-accomplished students in other states depress national averages. How can a state whose per-pupil spending is ranked at the bottom expect to meet this expectation?

Zacarias has offered a small retreat from this foolishness. He has defined 3rd-grade literacy as the 36th percentile, not the 50th, on standardized tests. But if Zacarias wants to abolish social promotion, does he intend that more than one-third of the district's children should repeat 3rd grade? If, because of more serious social and economic problems, L.A.'s score distribution is lower than that of the nation as a whole, will the district fail the majority of 3rd graders who test below the 36th national percentile? If districts elsewhere improve their performance, will L.A. have to hold back even more students because more of them will then fall below the 36th percentile in a national distribution?

Arguments for making "below grade level" students repeat are, at first blush, appealing. If students automatically advance, perhaps they'll be less motivated to study. If they fall behind their peers, teachers cannot tailor their lessons to appropriate grade levels, but must include review material as well, which impedes other students' learning.

But any such appeal is misguided. There will always be a distribution of performance around an average. If, for example, we say 4th-grade children should read half a million words by year's end, some perfectly normal children will only have read 300,000, while others will have completed their half million the previous year. Children develop unevenly.

Varied backgrounds also predispose children to perform differently, though they receive identical instruction. Even in the best schools, children of college graduates will likely perform, on average, better than those of high school dropouts. Should we set standards so low that all can meet them if special help is available? Such standards will present little challenge to most children, resulting in social promotion. Or should we set standards near the mean, accepting that many will read much better but just as many will read far worse?

Wilson proposes mandatory summer school for students who are "below grade level" in reading. This could be a praiseworthy addition to California's school program. But with socioeconomic handicaps being what they are, summer remediation still will not help most of these students achieve average (and certainly not above-average) scores for their grade. California still will have to decide whether to retain below-average performers, or to set standards so low that nearly everyone can pass.

Not every child should be promoted, but neither should every child scoring below grade level be held back. A nuanced policy, however, requires case-by-case judgments and doesn't lend itself to glib formulas like "end social promotion."

Nonpromotion has other costs. Repeating students may be demoralized, further slowing their academic progress. If children with below-average achievement might benefit from different approaches, they're not likely to receive any in classrooms where they recently failed to excel. While age-grouping children creates academic challenges, grouping those of various ages by academic skill causes developmental and behavioral problems that schools can ill afford.

Ask a 7th-grade teacher if she wants last year's 6th-graders promoted to her class if they didn't master 6th-grade material, she'll say, "No, let the 6th-grade teacher first get them ready for 7th-grade." But ask the same 7th-grade teacher if she wants her below-average students retained in her class, and she'll object, "I have a hard enough time with 12-year-olds now; the last thing I need is a bunch of older kids in the classroom." No policy can satisfy both demands, unless we reduce pupil-teacher ratios sufficiently to abolish age-grading and permit each child to develop at his or her own pace.

But this solution is expensive. When California's K-3 class sizes have been reduced to 20, and if the state's teaching force is retrained for ungraded classrooms, this may become possible. But it's no answer for the upper grades, around which "social promotion" controversies swirl.

A widely publicized 1908 report focused on funds being wasted in 55 urban school districts from teaching the same grade twice to nonpromoted pupils. The retained child, "humiliated by being associated with companions who are younger, drops out." The report urged more social promotion to enhance efficiency.

By 1938, most school superintendents favored "social promotion," according to a National Education Assn. report. In 1941, a New York Regents report advised all schools "to adapt instruction to the needs of pupils at all times, and at the end of the year to advance him to the next grade."

In 1955, a World Book research team noted the prevalence of social promotion, concluding that because schools seek "physical, social and emotional outcomes as well as purely academic ones, advantages of this greater age-homogeneity probably outweigh the difficulties."

Today's schools face similar contradictions. In most cases, the advantages of social promotion still outweigh the difficulties. Sound bites are unlikely to develop better solutions than those with which educators have struggled for the last century.

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