Issues Challenging Education CLOUDS AND SUN

One More Time: The Social Promotion Debate

Jeremy Stevens

Lorraine Tuck

Fara Zimmerman


What is the issue?

… My Education Accountability Act will require every school district receiving federal help to take the following five steps. First, all schools must end social promotion. No child should graduate from high school with a diploma he or she can't read. We do our children no favors when we allow them to pass from grade to grade without mastering the material. But we can't just hold students back because the system fails them. So my balanced budget triples the funding for summer school and after-school programs, to keep a million children learning. Now, if you doubt this will work, just look at Chicago, which ended social promotion and made summer school mandatory for those who don't master the basics. Math and reading scores are up three years running--with some of the biggest gains in some of the poorest neighborhoods. It will work, and we should do it. …

President Clinton

State of the Union Address


President Clinton's declaration that social promotion must end has made the non-promotion of underachieving students a front burner issue. Governors of several states including California, North Carolina, Texas, Delaware, Wisconsin, and Michigan have followed suit in their State of the States addresses.

In a memorandum from President Clinton to the Secretary of Education in February of 1999, the White House challenges "states and school districts to end social promotion… to require students to meet rigorous academic standards… and to end the practice of promoting students without regard to how much they have learned…Students should not be promoted past the fourth grade if they cannot read independently… and should not enter high school without a solid foundation in math." The President's proposal is simple: provide funding for successful schools and withhold federal monies from those that aren't. The bottom line is to end social promotion and retain students who are not on grade level.

Many states have already developed plans to end social promotion. In the 1994-96 school year, Michigan, Kentucky, and Texas retained thousands of students. In 1995-96, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts continued this controversial practice. Across all states, four million students were retained in 1994 (Wheelock, 1999). The number of retained students is likely to increase, as pending legislation in many states will require students to demonstrate competency on a standardized or end-of-grade test prior to promotion. Those who cannot make the cut will be held back. In fact, the Chicago model, praised by President Clinton because students without basic math and reading skills must attend summer school, has been presented as a model for other states to follow.

Is retention the answer? Have students in the past who were retained benefited from such a move? What happened to students who were socially promoted?


More than half of the nation's urban fourth graders are below level in reading. In Maryland, New Jersey, and Louisiana the numbers are more staggering. More than 70 percent of the urban fourth graders in these three states are reading below grade level. Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia give the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, and show similar results.

Current national practices of social promotion are similar to those in Texas. In a 1995 survey by the Texas Federation of Teachers, 70 percent of elementary teachers and 61 percent of middle and high school teachers stated that a high percentage of students who failed their classes were promoted to the next grade.

Social promotion was approved practice in the late 50's and 60's. Students who had been retained previously but continued to make few academic gains were "socially promoted."

Bronner (Jan. 22, 1999) reports that Karl Alexander, sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, in "On the Success of Failure," writes that retention is slightly preferred over social promotion. "'These kids start out far behind. For lots of them, retention stops the free fall. Repeating a year does help academically and does not compromise self-regard." The debate on social promotion vs. retention continues with few clear answers on either side.

"Contrary to popular notion, the research on retention clearly indicates the practice of 'failing' students is just as popular now as it was at the turn of the century." Light (1991) and Sheppard (1987) support this notion by estimating an overall retention rate of 15% to 19% using U.S. Census Bureau data.

Research on low-achieving students who are promoted is limited. However, Norton (1983), in a research review, cites a research study by Koons (1977) revealing that "'regularly promoted low-achieving pupils score higher on achievement tests than do similar retained pupils after they spend an additional year in a grade'" (p. 701). Norton also cites Anifson (1941) who found that students who were promoted had fewer social personal adjustments.

New York City, in 1981, enforced rigid standards for promotion using the California Achievement Tests. Students below grade level were required to attend summer school and retake the test. Students not on grade level after summer school testing were retained. In evaluating this policy, students who were retained made no greater progress than students who in earlier years were passed to the next grade.

Another study in North Carolina supported this notion that students who are retained make no greater progress than below level students who are promoted (Harvard, May 1986).

Coffield (1974), cited by Light (1991), "insists that the research over the past 30 years has consistently shown that children usually do not improve academically or socially after retention."

Lorrie Sheppard's (1987) extensive research on retention demonstrates that few benefits of retention have been found. Generally, students do well the year after retention but show little gains after that. These gains do not offset the lowered self-esteem and ostracism caused by retention.

Norton (1983) reviewed studies (Bocks, 1977; Street and Leigh, 1971) indicating that non-promotion does not ensure greater academic mastery and genuinely inhibits social maturity (Sandin, 1944; White and Howards, 1973). In addition, the threat of non- promotion provides little or no motivation towards achievement.

James R. Johnson's 1984 review of research on grade retention and social promotion reveals few solutions to this complex issue. He deplores decisions made on the basis of one test and is concerned that political and state leaders will use "radical surgery to treat the symptom." He believes that the retention of students relieves schools of responsible teaching.

What Are the Forces Driving the Issue?

Three years ago Chicago began to end social promotion, and today its policy is a model for our nation's cyclical belief that success can be obtained through the threat or execution of failure. What gave Chicago the momentum to require summer school for 42,000 students in 1997 (Ritter 1997) and 130,200 in 1998, twice as many as any other city, at an estimated cost of $65 million? (Daley 1998)

The move to end social promotion may be politically driven. The President has criticized the practice in two State of the Union Addresses (1997,1999), most recently making rural and inner city schools that discourage social promotion a priority in fiscal year 2000 with the proposed $600 million disbursement for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program (EDInitiatives, 1999). Chicago's mandatory summer school precipitated "some of the biggest gains in some of the poorest neighborhoods," as Clinton boasted in the 1999 Address. Perhaps other states will aspire to want similar recognition and possible reward.

Parents and teachers have also called for the end of social promotion. A 1998 Texas poll revealed that 92 percent of its citizens are in favor of insisting that no pupil leaves the third grade without the ability to read, while some 78 percent viewed social promotion as a serious issue in the public schools (Bingham, 1998).  The Cleveland Teacher's Union reported similar findings among its members, citing a 1996 statistic that less than 1,900 of the 5,700 students who should have comprised the Class of 1998 are on track to graduate (Corrigan, 1997).

When unprepared students are socially driven through the system, colleges have to offer remedial courses and businesses have to spend millions teaching new employees basic skills (Feldman, 1997). In 1998, nearly half of all students admitted to the California State University system, representing the top third of the state's high school graduates, arrived in need of remedial English and/or math instruction. Philadelphia businesses and colleges have also lodged complaints that its public school graduates are poorly educated (Daley, 1998).

In the face of the expense of public school education and the growth of the voucher/charter movement, states are pushed from many directions for school accountability. To satisfy the demand for accountability, high stakes testing across the country is once again becoming the driving force behind the retention issue. Texas Governor George Bush is "getting tough" with statewide tests to determine promotion; Chicago has "buckled down" with the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) as its standard; and in North Carolina, Johnston County has implemented a "three strikes, you're retained" end- of- grade test policy in concurrence with that state's ABC's accountability measures.

Los Angeles School Superintendent Zacarias has decided to eliminate social promotion, resulting in a retention rate of only one percent. It is significant that the leader of the country's second largest school system is supporting the end of social promotion. The pressure is on: politicians, teachers, and parents across the country demand change (Pick, 1998).

Where Is the Issue Going? What Are Its Prospects?

Despite the lack of evidence that retention of students contributes to a higher level of learning, many teachers and parents have continued to believe that if children who fail to meet grade standards are retained, they will become stronger students. This view is so widespread that Anita Sakowicz (1996) declared that the use of retention is a clear example of "poor communication between research and practice" (Robertson, 1997). However, there are indications that as group after group challenges the value of retention, the public is slowly redefining its goals for children who fail to learn at the same rate as their classmates.

The American Federation of Teachers concluded, after its exhaustive study of social promotion and retention, that neither social promotion nor retention benefits children (1997). The AFT report "Passing on Failure" identified several reasons for student failure:

  • Immaturity
  • Weak curriculum and instruction
  • Excessive absenteeism
  • Lack of effort
  • Failure of teachers and administrators as well as parents to use practices that promote high achievement.
  • Failure due to a combination of the factors listed above

Retaining students hasn’t been demonstrated as an effective remedy for any of those causes of failure. As a result, AFT President Feldman (1997) outlined three choices that are potentially more constructive than either social promotion or retention: early intervention and identification of students who are falling behind; establishment of grade-level standards; and strengthened teacher training. In doing so, she reframes the issue as a failure of school curriculum and instruction, and less as a failure of individual students. This represents a change in focus for Feldman. As President of UFT, the New York City teachers’ union, she had called for an end to social promotion just weeks prior to the publication of the AFT report (1997).

Secretary of Education Richard Riley stated that when President Clinton spoke of ending social promotion, he meant that neither retention nor social promotion is an appropriate solution to the problems of "a house on fire" (1999). Riley explained that the President wants to increase support for struggling students, because retention is no more helpful to students than social promotion.

The National Research Council has issued a strongly worded objection to the use of high stakes testing as the basis for promotion-retention decisions (Archer, 1998). Many state policies have provisions that allow for consideration of grades, teacher recommendations, and parent conferences in decisions concerning promotion in order to avoid reliance on a sole test for promotion decisions. Many school districts, including several in North Carolina, tie grade advancement to summer school attendance. North Carolina’s Proposed Statewide Student Promotion Standards also limits the number of times students can be retained (NCDPI, 1999). Nearly all of the newly enacted state guidelines for promotion include some escape clause, and are in many respects similar to existing policies, except for the inclusion of a test as a gateway to the next grade.

Advocates for exceptional children are especially sensitive to changes in the ways children advance through school. They estimate that as many as 100,000 special needs children in North Carolina alone could fail to receive high school diplomas, if social promotion is ended (Simmons, 23 February 1999). Lacking a diploma, those students wouldn’t be able to receive any post-secondary training, and would be closed out of many entry-level jobs. Although the State Board of Education is aware of the plight of these students, current policy will require children identified as exceptional to meet the same standards as other students to receive a diploma. Parents of these children may be expected to press for modification of standards-based promotion decisions. Hence, a potential source of legal controversy lies in the conflict between states’ promotion plans and the mandates of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Another group for whom an end to social promotion would have a disproportionate effect is minorities. Educators have been aware for years that poor students, Hispanics and African Americans are more likely to be retained. As many as half of African American and Hispanic students are already retained at some point in their schooling (Archer, 1998), while the 35% of other students are likely to be retained. In North Carolina, nearly half of minority students fail to achieve at grade level on state tests (NCDPI, 1999). The disparate effect on minorities of retention based on rigid standards opens the door to challenges based on racial discrimination.

Parents and educators note that a lack of clear grade standards adds to the problem. There is a call for the development of grade standards. However, this is as daunting a challenge as finding solutions to the problem of student failure. Some states have statewide standards, but in many states schools are organized into independent districts each of which determines its own grade level standards for student achievement. Developing meaningful standards that can predict a level of learning for students who move from district to district let alone from state to state represents a move toward a national standards and curriculum that is in itself controversial.

What Are the Implications of the Issue for Public Education in the U.S.?

Educators, parents, and businesses are determined to improve the quality of American education. One of the easiest ways to reform would seem to be the establishment of standards which must be met by all children as they progress from grade to grade. Since children learn at different rates and have varying degrees of motivation, some children may master the grade objectives and be promoted while those who fail to meet the standard should be retained until they do. However, it is not in the best interests of children for schools to abandon completely the practice of social promotion, given the volume of research that refutes the value of retention.

We know that an end to social promotion, resulting in retention of large numbers of students, would place an enormous strain on the physical capacity of schools, and require staffing expenses at a higher level than states may be willing or able to fund. A crisis of overcrowding of schools would soon result. This is not, however, the reason that educators such as AFT’s Feldman are turning away from their previous positions on social promotion.

Historically, students who are retained are far more likely to drop out of school, and no more likely to "catch up" than students who are never retained. Increasing the number of students who are retained in order to end social promotion is inevitably going to increase the dropout rate.

We know, too, that a recommendation to end social promotion is contrary to nearly all research on the issue. Retention does not help students, and researchers will only go so far as to say that in some cases it does less harm than in others.

Determining whom to retain is not a clear-cut decision: nearly all plans to hold students to a standard involve parent and teacher appeals to override a proposed retention of a child. This will certainly lead to inequity, as some children will be punished more for having parents who don’t, for whatever reason, advocate for them.

Setting standards is a process rife with potential for conflict among states, within districts and even within schools. Yet a decision to end social promotion must take into account the very real prospect of having children across classrooms being expected to achieve at quite different levels of competency.

A somewhat more subtle result of ending social promotion may be an increased erosion of support for public schools, as the parents of children who are retained seek alternative forms of education. A recommended or mandated retention may convince parents that use of vouchers, charter schools or home schooling is a healthier choice than retention. A thoughtful parent need only look to the numerous studies of retention to doubt its benefit.

At the same time, it is also not in the best interests of children to move them through school without educating them. We are alarmed that, whatever the source of the standard, large numbers of students are unable to achieve at a level felt by educators to be appropriate. Knowing that neither social promotion nor retention promotes student achievement, we are left to devise new solutions. AFT President Feldman (1997) touched on this in her discussion of Passing on Failure (1997). Not wanting to cripple children by passing them on without an education or by retaining them, educators must look to early prevention of learning problems. To do this requires school leaders to acknowledge that the learning difficulties of children may be created by the school: poor teaching practice and weak curriculum as well as practice, and weak curriculum, as well as and a lack of standards and of student motivation are causes of failure that must be addressed.

What Should Educational Leaders Do Now to Prepare for the Issue?

Politicians, teachers, and parents should agree that neither social promotion nor retention is necessarily good for children: interventions that promote learning success without the damage of retention must be creatively developed. High cost, violence, and overcrowding, not to mention marred self-esteem, and an increase in the dropout rate caused by retention are already buzzwords in our public schools. Without some intervention strategy, our reliance on a demonstratively damaging policy of retention and an equally harmful automatic progression of children through school without appropriate mastery of skills and knowledge is likely to continue. Several districts have already laid solid foundations to ensure that retention for their students is a last resort.

In Albuquerque, for instance, the principal and parents must be notified early if retention is anticipated, and a special support program is designed for each child who is in danger of failing. Cincinnati provides "Plus Classes" for students in grades 3, 6, and 8 who do not meet promotion standards but are at an age at which it is inappropriate to remain with younger students, and New Orleans offers "double dosing" of classes students are in danger of failing (Feldman, 1997). Long Beach Unified School District created the Signal Hill Academy in 1997 for eighth graders with two or more F's on report cards, under the premise that "making students repeat the same classes with the same teachers would not address the reasons they had failed in the first place" (Daley, 1998).

President Clinton seeks to triple funding for after school programs through the 21st Century Learning Centers plan. Inner cities and rural districts are the primary targets for quality services, from academic enrichment to community development. Our leaders need to take advantage of such programs, not only for monetary incentives via the elimination of social promotion but because these children are the center of the social promotion issue.

For these interventions to be effective in the schools, experience in the classroom is imperative. Inner city schools or rural districts, on-track classrooms and remedial situations like Signal Hill seem to be the placements of choice for inexperienced, partially certified or unqualified teachers. As recent studies have found, "teacher expertise is by far the single most important determinant of student performance" (Darling-Hammond 1998).

Finally, our leaders must make the promotion standards explicit and define what students should know and be able to do at various grade levels. Too often there are no clear criteria for whether or not a student should be promoted. For instance, Hillsborough County, Florida, states that " retention should be based on insufficient progress in basic skills and on the student's inability to apply basic skills to the study of academic areas" (Feldman, 1997). What is "insufficient progress," and to what extent, and in to what areas, are students expected to apply this information?

President Clinton has stressed that social promotion will not be tolerated. Governors, superintendents, teachers and parents fervently agree. If our leaders expect to make this declaration work, they must avoid simple acceptance en route to mass retention and concentrate on intervention strategies. Implemented early and with stringent adherence, these mediums will work to bolster the revisited plan of social promotion.


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