Social promotion, in education circles, refers to the practice of allowing students to move on to the next grade level or course even though they are unable to demonstrate they have mastered the skills and knowledge they were expected to learn. Ending or reducing social promotion has been a major theme in the standards-based education reform of the last 10-15 years. Ending social promotion feels like a sound, obvious consequence of standards-based education. Each year (or course) comes with set of standards that articulate what students must know and be able to do once complete. Since the standards of the following course will assume proficiency on previous standards, there is a fundamental common sense to prohibiting students to move to the next level before they have conquered all prior levels.

In reality, this is a gross oversimplification bordering on reductio ad absurdum. Allow me to throw a few wrinkles into the carrion calls for social promotion’s demise. First, some standards do not come packaged with lofty presumptions of prior knowledge or skills. For example, a student could be quite successful in a high school chemistry or physics course without being successful in biology. In fact many students take these three courses in a sequence which explicitly prevents taking advantage of the natural interrelatedness of these sciences1. For sure there are some skills that serve as critical gateways to future standards and expectations, but a student may fail a course while still having all of the core scaffolding in place for the next course level. Second, it is unclear that repeating a class (or entire grade-level) is an effective mechanism to successfully attain acceptable achievement. What proportion of content that will be repeated has a student already successfully learned without need for reinforcement? Are the strategies and pedagogy employed to teach students new material the same as those used to re-teach material? I’m doubtful. Then there are behavioral and social concerns. What are the impacts on a student’s self-esteem? What are the impacts, particularly in elementary schools, of mixing students at even greater age ranges? If students must relearn content, reread the same books, etc, what will happen to their level of engagement with the material? What is the impact of isolating students from their friends in a way that might feel like punishment?

There’s research on both sides of this issue– some that demonstrates that students who are held back do better academically2, and some that show outcomes are no better or worse. The impact on the socio-emotional side also seems mixed, although there is more consensus around negative consequences for being held back. That being said, much of the research I have read on social promotion looks at all students being held back in various contexts and not specifically examining long-term effects within a large-scale implementation that regularizes the process, which perhaps decreases the social stigma of being held back and increases the efficacy of teachers with held back students. I am having a hard time remembering at the moment, but I can’t recall a large-scale study that used regression discontinuity (and instrumental variable) like the previously linked Jay P. Greene Florida study that took a robust look at socio-economic outcomes. Less rigorous methodologies may introduce substantial bias to results3.

That being said, I generally think that social promotion is not ideal. In a perfect world, principals and district leaders would have a better sense of how well teachers are able to differentiate instruction in their classrooms more precisely. This way, they could adequately determine when a student is so far behind expectations that it is unreasonable to expect teachers to deliver the necessary instruction in a mixed-ability classroom. When a student is that far behind at the end of the school year, targeted summer intervention would attempt to bring a student to within an acceptable range by the start of the next school year. If this fails, then, and only then, should a student be held back.

None of this is new. In fact, Wikipedia led me to an article about social promotion archived on the US Department of Education webpage from May 1999 that is strikingly similar to everything I wrote above4.

Emily Richardson has a great post in The Atlantic 5about an intriguing alternative. David Berliner, an Arizona State University professor of education, says,

“Everybody supports the idea that if a student isn’t reading well in third grade that it’s a signal that the child needs help. If you hold them back, you’re going to spend roughly another $10,000 per child for an extra year of schooling. If you spread out that $10,000 over the fourth and fifth grades for extra tutoring, in the long run you’re going to get a better outcome.”

There has recently been an increase in evidence about the efficacy of intensive, very small group (like two-on-one) tutoring at raising academic achievement based on a “successful replication” of the MATCH Charter School’s tutoring program in the Houston Independent School District’s Apollo 20 Program6. Intensive one-on-one support has several key advantages that address some of my “wrinkles” about social promotion above. The instruction is specifically catered toward the exact standards that a student is weak on (and possibly on standards that are more foundational to future learning). The strategies and techniques used to teach a student may not be the same as whole-classroom, first-time exposure learning. The intervention strategy feels more like a surplus than deficit-driven policy, i.e. students are receiving more because of their achievement not being “punished”. And that is not remotely an exhaustive list.

The problem is that education funding is not structured to spend the way that Berliner is recommending. Revenues are often raised or doled out on a per pupil basis so holding a student for an extra year will virtually automatically result in additional formula-driven dollars7. There is no way to flag a student as needing the “5th-year high school” funding now, in the form of two years of intensive, one-on-one tutoring in elementary or middle school. I am not sure I think that’s a good thing, because I really do think that Berliner is on to something here. The cost-effectiveness of the total investment in any one student identified as being at risk of falling seriously behind is likely to be far higher providing a huge influx of resources to be used entirely on individualized intervention rather than offering an entire extra year of education overall and repeating a specific grade.

The logistics of supporting this kind of intervention with anything but local or private revenue is causing my brain to do mental gymnastics, but the complexity might really be worth the benefits.

  1. An aside for another day. ↩︎

  2. ending social promotion based on standardized assessments offers pretty much a textbook example of regression discontinuity studies, which I think is kind of cool ↩︎

  3. Although woefully outdated and using a source from 1986, the research section of the Wikipedia page on grade retention outlines this in effective and simple language ↩︎

  4. I did find the article after I wrote this post ↩︎

  5. And on her blog, The Educated Reporter ↩︎

  6. Of course there is lot of past research to support this idea, but I do think that Fryer’s Apollo 20 evaluation has reinvigorated discussion around the effectiveness of this type of intervention in the past several months. ↩︎

  7. In theory, at least. Of course many states are reducing their state aid formula in funky ways and there are loopholes in most maintenance of effort laws that are now being rigorously used to allow for per pupil decreases in local revenues ↩︎