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For many years, American schools commonly practiced what is called "social promotion," the advancement of struggling students from one grade level to the next with the intent of keeping children in the same peer group, in the hopes that students would reach grade-level achievement levels in a subsequent school year. However, as a part of states' standards, assessment and accountability initiatives starting in the mid-1990s, states and districts began to implement bans on social promotion, intending to keep children in the same grade level until they could demonstrate mastery of grade-level skills and knowledge. While at first glance a reasonable means of assuring that students gain grade-level proficiency, a number of research studies have indicated that neither retention nor social promotion positively influence students.

Research on retention proposes that:

  • Minority, male, urban and poor students are disproportionately more likely to be retained
  • Retention increases students' likelihood of eventually dropping out
  • Retention lowers self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Retained students are likely to remain below grade-level proficiency levels.
Critics of social promotion, however, counter that:

  • Socially promoted students, when they do not drop out, graduate with insufficient skills and knowledge, leaving them inadequately prepared for employment and postsecondary education
  • Social promotion devalues the high school diploma
  • Social promotion suggests to students that hard work isn't necessary to achieve goals.
When considering promotion/retention policies, policymakers should examine:

  • Is teacher quality an issue? Students under inadequately prepared teachers will find greater difficulty meeting the high grade-level standards recently adopted in many states.

  • Are teachers sufficiently trained in identifying student learning problems and providing suitable interventions?

  • Are there early interventions to address academic difficulties before students get far behind in their skills? By the time the results of the statewide assessment are released, it often is too late to implement an intervention plan.
States and districts should consider as vital components of retention policies an early identification and individualized intervention program, after-school or Saturday tutorials and targeted summer school programs. Without quality time focused on students' individual needs, it is unlikely that struggling students will attain grade-level proficiency.

Practices such as looping (in which students remain with the same teacher and classmates for more than one academic year), smaller class size and multi-age classrooms also have been proposed as means to help teachers identify struggling children and provide them with individualized instruction. However, the success of these latter three approaches indisputedly rests on teacher quality; students in a small class or spending multiple years with an ineffective teacher will not make adequate progress toward grade-level proficiency.

For information on the related issue of high-stakes assessments, please visit "High Stakes/Competency."

Sources: Finding Alternatives To Failure: Can States End Social Promotion and Reduce Retention Rates?, Southern Regional Education Board, January 2001; The Grade Retention vs. Social Promotion Trap: Finding Alternatives That Work, Lisa Banicky with Helen K. Foss, University of Delaware, 1999.


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