Student Achievement Opinion

Social Promotion or Retention?

By Adam Berlin — October 17, 2008 5 min read
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Edward was an intelligent but unmotivated 7th grader, and one day, in my frustration, I threatened him with retention. It was a threat I knew would never be carried out. Yet Edward’s response startled me. Calmly, and rather smugly, he replied: “That’s what they told me in 6th grade, and here I am in 7th.”

Edward had figured out the system and, as far as he was concerned, was coasting on easy street. He knew he would pass to the next grade regardless of his level of work. So he did none.

Edward’s case illustrates what is possibly the biggest issue facing middle schools today: What should be done with students who fail? Some districts still enforce a system of grade retention, though many believe that holding a student back causes more harm than good. Numerous studies have shown the negative correlation between retention and high school dropout rates. (Examples can be found from the National Bureau of Economic Research and the National Center for Education Statistics.)

Those who dislike retention often default to another flawed option: social promotion. This has led to a growing subculture of students like Edward—students who understand the system and use the unofficial policy of social promotion to their perceived advantage. After failing consistently through three years of middle school, they end up in high school without the academic discipline or study skills needed to pass. Unable in high school to rely on social promotion as a crutch, they are left with a choice: either to step up and do the work or to continue to fail.

Yet students such as Edward cannot be expected to succeed—and, for the most part, they don’t. They do, however, contribute to the number of high school students who need more than four years to graduate, or who drop out altogether. While there isn’t anything implicitly wrong with a student’s needing more than four years to graduate, the presence of such students increases the likelihood that a school will be considered failing under the terms of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which punishes schools when students do not graduate with their original cohort.

To help increase high school graduation rates and ensure compliance with the No Child Left Behind law, education officials need to begin focusing more on students’ high school readiness. One way to do that would be by reforming middle school graduation policies.

Middle schools would be vastly improved by creating an integrated system covering grades 7-12 for accumulating the credits needed for a diploma. In a majority of U.S. schools, students earn credit toward graduation at the high school level only. If they fail a required subject, they must repeat it and pass to be able to graduate. In middle school, failing students are either handed off to the next grade through social promotion or are retained in all classes—even the ones they have passed.

Schools do great harm to young people by not requiring them to <i>earn</i> middle school graduation.

A graduation credit system that included grades 7-12 would help establish the academic accountability currently lacking in middle schools. In such a system, middle school students, needing to earn credits toward graduation, would repeat failed classes as they do in high school. Ideally, they also would come to understand at the age of 11 or 12—not as 14-year-olds—that it is important to study and do your work.

While superior to flat-out retention or the carelessness of social promotion, however, a graduation-credit system that encompassed middle school would not be without its own challenges. Steps would need to be taken, for example, to avoid large numbers of retained students while also maintaining the integrity of the program. This could be done through a mandatory, intensive, skills-based summer school program. Teachers would create summer school curricula that focused on the core concepts of the subjects and the skills needed to pass the courses in the future. Alternative assessments would be created in lieu of traditional content-driven final exams, to help students remain with their cohort and to minimize the numbers needing to retake a course in its entirety.

Let’s say that a 7th grader fails my social studies class, for example. I would not, as a summer school teacher under this plan, attempt to reteach the entire curriculum. Instead, I would focus on the core concepts. We would also spend significant time on the skills he or she would need to pass social studies in the 8th grade: essay writing, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Then, instead of a traditional final exam, I would assign the student an essay that incorporated both the content and the skills learned during the summer.

Such a program would establish an important middle ground between the policies of retention and social promotion. Students would be required to attend and pass summer school. If they didn’t, the failed class would have to be retaken. A focus on core concepts, basic skills, and alternative assessments would set up summer school in such a way that failing would be difficult. And this would allow a vast majority of the students to continue on to the next level.

In effect, a modified form of social promotion would still be in place, but one offering a means for students to acquire additional skills and greater knowledge. Students like Edward also would be more likely to take their studies seriously, knowing that both summer school and retention were real possibilities if they did not.

In their book Cutting Through the Hype: A Taxpayer’s Guide to School Reforms, Jane L. David and Larry Cuban corroborate the need to “break out of the straitjacket of age-graded schooling.”

“One approach”, they write, “is to reorganize students by skill level for each subject and move them ahead as they master skills. This results in ungraded classes—that is, classes with students of mixed ages.” An intergraded 7-12 accreditation system based on skill level rather than age would accomplish exactly that.

In the fall of 2007, my teachers’ union presented a similar plan to district officials. They politely dismissed the idea, citing research on the evils of retention. I still hold out hope, however, that both they and district leaders elsewhere will come to realize that schools do great harm to young people by not requiring them to earn middle school graduation.

My students, and my own children, will face a world in which they are forced to compete against highly educated workers in other countries who are able to do the same work at cheaper wages. If we do not increase the academic rigor in middle schools, I’m afraid that greater numbers of adolescent learners will choose apathy and social promotion over academic dedication and earned promotion.

A grades 7-12 system of determining credits toward graduation would provide a long-sought-after alternative to the all-or-nothing policies of retention and social promotion. At the same time, it would instill a sense of academic accountability in young people on the threshold of high school. But regardless of whether districts adopt this particular program, we cannot continue simply to hold back students or promote them without cause, as though no other alternatives existed.

A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2008 edition of Education Week as Social Promotion or Retention?


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