Published: January 2, 2008

Few States Require Promotion Exams

Nearly ten years ago, in his 1998 State of the Union Address, President Bill Clinton asserted that "it is time to end social promotion in America's schools." Social promotion is the practice of moving students from grade to grade with their classmates despite their failure to meet academic standards. It is known as social promotion because it is sometimes motivated by a desire to enhance students' social lives and self-esteem by keeping them with their same-age peers. However, Clinton contended that "when we promote a child from grade to grade who hasn't mastered the work, we don't do that child any favors" (CNN, January 27, 1998). Like-minded policymakers have seen state-mandated assessment policies, including those that call for students to pass a statewide promotion exam to advance to the next grade, as potential tools for combating the practice. This Stat of the Week examines the number of states currently requiring promotion exams and the trend in state adoption of this policy over time.

Trends in Promotion and Exit Exams

Few states have mandated exams tied to students' grade to grade advancement. According to data collected for Education Week's Quality Counts 2007 report, seven mostly southern states—Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin—require students to pass promotion exams in order to enter the next grade. That number represents a three state increase since 2002. All of these states administer their promotion exams in the eighth grade or earlier. In comparison, the number of states mandating that students pass exit exams in order to earn a standard high school diploma is over three times as high, increasing from 17 to 22 in the same time period. While some policy initiatives may attempt to stop social promotion using strategies that do not involve exams, states have generally been more reluctant to bar low-scoring students from advancing to the next grade than to deny them a high school diploma.

Advocates of promotion exams maintain that they reduce the likelihood that students will be passed along through school without mastering the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in postsecondary education or the workplace. They also believe such exams offer educators the opportunity to provide earlier interventions to struggling students. Critics of promotion exams, on the other hand, point to research showing that students who are retained are more likely to drop out of school, and suggest that remediation programs for students failing the exams are expensive. They further contend that promotion decisions should be based on the input of teachers rather than students' scores on a single exam. There may be consensus however, that more effective teaching and intervention strategies would help reduce school failure.

For more state-by-state information related to social promotion, please see the EPE Research Center's Education Counts database.

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