Everybody passes

As a fifth-grade teacher, Tracey can’t hold students back, she writes in Stories from School.

I’m supposed to write on Jordan’s report card that he is promoted to sixth grade. He shouldn’t be promoted to sixth grade. He hasn’t done the work at fifth grade. He reads at a third grade level. He’s not ready for sixth grade. Yet, I’m not allowed to make the decision that this child needs a second chance at fifth grade. I have to promote him because it might hurt him emotionally to not be with his friends.

I’ve had other students like Jordan before – students who miss a third of the school year, students who don’t try because they’re so far behind as it is, and students who never do the assignments.

Elementary students don’t know that school policy bans retention. Some will work harder to make sure they’re promoted. But they’re going to figure it out next year when Jordan shows up in sixth grade. Lesson: Showing up and doing the work doesn’t matter.

A high school teacher was amazed and appalled to learn that everybody passes in elementary school. It did explain why her high school students were so surprised when they had to repeat a class they’d failed.

I wonder if the decision to promote elementary students, regardless of their knowledge and skills, has been worth it? We know this decision isn’t a cure-all for low self-esteem, because these students know they’re behind. Do they “catch up” in middle school and high school?

Usually, they have to repeat ninth grade. Then they drop out.

About Joanne


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    If you wanted to–most deliberately–ruin a kid’s education, this is one of the first things you’d do.
    And you’d base it on something evanescent, such as putting the kid’s emotional state at the time ahead of everything else, including what happens when he eventually fails or drops out. You’d be the good guy, the opposition would be meanies, and, best of all, there’d be no way to prove you’re wrong.

  2. YES!!!!

    Finally, someone said it. I’m a high school teacher (Physics/Chemistry), and I’m tired of illiterate and math-incompetent students, whose self-esteem was protected to the extent that when I mark an answer “wrong”, say, “well, that’s YOUR opinion”.

    It’s my opinion that 2 + 2 = 4?

    That Newton’s Laws apply to all motion, everywhere (we’re not in Einsteinian physics, yet. These are problems where Newton rules)?

    That IDK (I don’t know) is NOT an acceptable answer. It doesn’t qualify for even a few points. I’ve started taking OFF points for using that shorthand.

    That “that doesn’t work for me” is the lame response of a student who hasn’t made the effort to learn how to solve a problem the proper way. I’m all for creative solutions, but there are constraints.

    95% of the problems in high school could be stopped, cold, by holding back kids who won’t work, REALLY aren’t prepared, and clearly aren’t ready, academically or emotionally, for the next grade. Our system of education is geared for a relatively small range of emotional maturity – when you have immature brats in the group, they slow down the entire class.

    The parents of such students:
    * truant
    * spoiled – the single biggest reason for bad behavior is parents who are poor disciplinarians
    * academically WAY under the bar of readiness (NOT for reason of mental incapability or disability – those kids need special ed)

    need to be brought in, sat down, and faced with the truth. YOUR kid is NOT going on to the next grade. Here’s some things you can do to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Hold the parents’ feet to the fire, and, if they have clearly been neglectful for a 2nd year, follow up with social services.

    Do NOT promote those kids – they hold everyone back.

    [side note – I’ve had students who clearly were behind due to disabilities, but whose parents refused to have them tested – didn’t want the “special ed stigma”. Schools can’t let this continue. They need to fight those parents, and get their children the help they need, regardless of the consequences. It’s like refusing to put leg braces on a child, because “people will stare”. Sometimes, if you love a child, you do the right thing, even if it causes temporary discomfort.]

  3. So there’s a real Hobson’s Choice here. Other research does indicate that retained students are more likely to drop out; and we’re unwilling to track students (i.e. put students who are not at grade level, but have been promoted, into separate “catch-up” classes).

  4. Tracking students went out of favor in the 1970’s and early 80’s as idiots with psycho degrees thought it might damage a kid’s self-esteem. The concept with social promotion is that a student who gets promoted to keep pace with his or her classmates based on age (but doesn’t have the skill) is going to find out the hard way in 9th grade that they don’t have the knowledge to pass classes which are required for graduation.

    When our district a few years ago started defining a student’s class (i.e. freshman, sophomore, junior, senior) solely on the basis of credits earned (rather than years attended), we developed a large number of 18 year old freshman (less than 5.5 credits earned) or sophomores (less than 11.5 credits earned) out of a normal 24 credits.

    When a student turns 19 (unless they do so during the current school year), they can no longer attend public school, so they either 1) drop out or 2) attend the adult high school (most students choose option 1, usually a few years before turning 18 or 19).

    So districts, keep giving students promotions to the next grade they haven’t EARNED, and you’ll wind up with a large dropout rate.

  5. Tracy W says:

    A year is just way too long a period for these decisions about academic promotion to be taking place. A kid doesn’t do the work for whatever reason, and the consequences only start to bite a year later? How many adults fail to study for end-of-year exams (I often failed at this), or who wake up with a hangover on Sunday morning swearing never to drink again, only to go out and get hammered the next Saturday night, or who break their diets again and again? And kids’ brains are on average less mature than their adult brains. But all of us but the most mentally-disabled learn not to touch hot plates on the stove unless we have a really good reason, and that’s because the feedback is immediate.

    Furthermore, let’s say Jordan fell behind because he didn’t understand the earlier work, or because he missed it out entirely being off sick, not because of lack of motivation. So he’s going to be left in class for the rest of the year, maybe another 8 months, before getting to go around again? What a waste of time. The kid only gets, what, 13 years at school, time is precious.

    I’m not blaming the teacher, dealing with students who are falling behind needs a whole-of-school solution. But it’s not at all surprising that keeping kids back a year would have bad results.

  6. ucladavid says:

    I teach at an Los Angeles Unified School District middle school. In he 6 years I have taught there, none of my students have ever been held back in middle school. In the 2009-10 school year, I had 5 7th grade students who failed ALL of their classes both semesters and are still moving on to the 8th grade.
    The only consequences for grades at my middle school (or any middle school in my district) are with 3 or more fails on the final report cards in 8th grade, they may not walk on stage at culmination or particpate in 8th grade activities (picnic, dance, grad night). However, they still move on to 9th grade. In 8th grade, if a student already knows that they will not be culminating, they just give up in all of their classes.

  7. palisadesk says:

    The trouble with holding kids back in fifth grade (or middle school) is that it rarely addresses the underlying problem(s). The fifth grader reading at a second grade level and barely able to write a sentence or do addition with regrouping, is not going to improve in those weak areas by spending another year in fifth grade.

    I did a literature search on this question a few years ago, and found that kids who were “socially promoted,” with no intervention of any kind, actually did *better* over the long haul than kids who were retained in grade. What typically happened with the retainees was their academic skills did not improve the second time around (since their underlying deficiencies were not addressed), they were more disengaged, developed negative attitudes if they didn’t have them already, were more likely to be either bullies or the bullied, and much more likely to drop out.

    I think the issue of retaining students has to be on the table for a much earlier point in their careers: K-3. Then, if in fact the student *is* retained, some very focused intervention and targeted teaching needs to take place to ensure the student masters the needed skills. Retention can only take place once or twice in a student’s elementary career, however, or we will need to look at building student parking lots in elementary schools, and get parents to accept the idea that their cute little 7-year-old may be in class with a hulking, hormonal adolescent:-O

    In cases of kids with cognitive limitations (low IQ), longitudinal data has shown they do not do better in “special ed” classes. They actually do *worse* there, and their included peers learn more and develop to higher levels. Their issues, too, should be dealt with by targeted and intensive intervention where needed.

  8. IntegratedMath says:

    If they don’t get fractions in elementary math, they still won’t get it in middle school or high school. Real World numbers are not whole and nice. There are plenty of fractions out there as well as decimals.

  9. Mark Roulo says:

    In cases of kids with cognitive limitations (low IQ), longitudinal data has shown they do not do better in “special ed” classes. They actually do *worse* there, and their included peers learn more and develop to higher levels.

    I’m not quite sure how to read this. Is the claim here that when low-IQ kids are included in normal classrooms, the non-low-IQ students in those same classrooms learn more than when the low-IQ kids are absent?

    -Mark Roulo

  10. tim-10-ber says:

    Either shut down government schools, give the money to the parents, require the kids to go to catholic schools (yes, monitor that they go) so the kids have a chance or stop social promotion.

    The problems for these kids happen in first, second or third grade. HOLD THEM BACK. It will not cause them to fail. Heck, have a T-1, T-2 or T-3 class to avoid the “stigma” of failure.

    Do what is right for the kids and they will be fine…it is the administrators that will be embarrassed as they should be…

    Teachers…hold the kids back…please!


  11. palisadesk says:

    I’m not quite sure how to read this. Is the claim here that when low-IQ kids are included in normal classrooms, the non-low-IQ students in those same classrooms learn more than when the low-IQ kids are absent?

    No, the longitudinal studies followed two populations of children with mild intellectual disability: either included in general education classes, or placed in Special Education classes for students with cognitive disability.

    “Their integrated peers” refers to the low-IQ students who were kept in a general education setting (with or without pull-out support). The learning of students without cognitive disabilities was not a factor studied AFAIK.

    The surprising, but consistent, finding was that “special education” with trained special education teachers did not yield a better outcome , despite the small class size and individualized programming. The students in Special Education classes made significantly less progress (on average) than the matched students who stayed in general education classrooms.
    I have some cites I can post if desired.

    Several exhaustive meta-analyses have been published and they all found large differences between achievement of low-IQ kids in general education and those in self-contained Special Ed settings, and these differences were overwhelmingly and counter-intuitively in favor of the former.

  12. The surprising, but consistent, finding was that “special education” with trained special education teachers did not yield a better outcome , despite the small class size and individualized programming.

    Which tells you something about “special ed”.

    Why not stop the “small class size” and “individualized programming” and just frigging teach low IQ students like general ed kids–except in low IQ classes? We shouldn’t be reducing or modifying or in any way changing general ed kids’ education just because it benefits a small subgroup.

    Also, just because they do better doesn’t mean they are working at grade level. So we should stop pretending everyone is doing the same work and achieving at the same level.

  13. palisadesk says:

    Teachers…hold the kids back…please!

    In my district, this is not permitted. Teachers cannot “hold kids back” or give them failing grades. Even principals cannot authorize a student to be retained in grade without the approval of the superintendent – something granted only in very exceptional cases.

    Why not stop the “small class size” and “individualized programming” and just frigging teach low IQ students like general ed kids–except in low IQ classes?

    We used to have tracking at the secondary level, with adumbrations of same starting in middle school (math, languages), but any type of tracking has become politically too explosive for any political party to support, and now we profess to be untracked, although of course the cognoscenti have ways of manipulating the system to their own advantage via magnet programs, immersion programs and similar schemes.

    We’re getting rid of most special education programs, in part because of the research that shows they are not effective in raising achievement but mostly because they are expensive. To conform with the legal requirement to service Sp. Ed. students, the emphasis is becoming “every teacher a Special Ed teacher” and pressuring all alementary teachers to get Special Ed certification. Realistically, most classes except in high-SES neighborhoods contain a number of students with exceptionalities, cognitive disability among the easier to manage: behavior exceptionalities, autism and complex medical challenges are the most difficult for the average elementary teacher to deal with, especially given that the number of paraprofessionals to support these students is steadily decreasing. We may not “send out” or remove disruptive or dangerous pupils, and endless paperwork is required for every such student.

    The district justifies much of this in the name of “equity” but they rarely consider the inequity involved in limiting the teaching and on-task time for the many students — average, gifted, or even “slow” but motivated — that results inevitably from so much interference with teaching time and requirement for “individualization” and “differentiation” in every class.

    Secondary teachers are much more militant on these issues, but raising the graduation rate is one of the ostensible reasons for this “all must succeed” policy even though it is not working. The political climate does not seem to favor a return to tracking, and the pendulum will probably swing farther before it begins to reverse its course.

  14. Palisadesk, can you define the level of cognitive delay that these children had? IQ lower than 75? lower than 65%? also, can you describe the amount of pull-out? these are important variables.

  15. Sharon R. says:

    My sister had to fight a bit to get her older daughter held back after 3rd grade. My niece (now in high school) has Attention Deficit Disorder (but not hyperactivity – so she just seems dreamy and never a bother in class) plus a learning disability related to visual tracking (if she looks up at the answer key at the top of the page, for example, her eyes don’t drop back to the correct problem – she has to hunt back through them all; it’s a subtly nasty deficit), plus various mild developmental delays. The difficulty was that if she was held back, and thus caught up to her grade level, she’d no longer be a year behind and thus would lose her IEP. My sister decided it was worth it to let her spend a school year being successful for a change. She did fall behind again the next year, but it was actually very good for the girl’s self-esteem to be able to do all the work, answer all the questions, and not feel like a dummy. She made new friends. It was fine. So much practice is based on imaginary concerns of how something might hurt someone’s feelings – as if that were the most important issue in any case.

  16. palisadesk says:

    can you define the level of cognitive delay that these children had? IQ lower than 75? lower than 65%? also, can you describe the amount of pull-out? these are important variables.

    I agree they are important variables — but most of my sources were meta-analyses (summaries and syntheses of other studies) and I did not take notes on those factors, which varied. I’ll paste in my major sources below and perhaps you can check them out yourself. The most striking finding was that for most children with mild intellectual disabilties, an inclusive setting even with NO pull-out or support led to more learning than a special education classroom. Yikes! Of course that does not mean that particular Sp. Ed. programs are not highly effective, but that on average, special education placement did not yield better achievement for these students.


    Carlberg, C., & Kavale, K. (1980). The efficacy of special versus regular class placement for exceptional children: A meta-analysis. Journal of Special Education, 14, 295-309.
    [special class placement was significantly damaging to students with mild to moderate intellectual delays but segregated settings were beneficial for emotionally disturbed and learning-disabled students. Mildly retarded kids showed a definite drop in standard scores vis-a-vis their peers in “mainstreamed” setting, indicating that they not only did not hold their own, they lost ground despite the “special” placement, lower class size, etc]

    Dunn, L. M. (1968). Special education for the mildly retarded– Is much of it justifiable? Exceptional Children, 35, 5-22. [this was the seminal paper that kick-started the “inclusion” movement]

    Engelmann, Siegfried.(1968) The Effectiveness of Direct Verbal Instruction IQ Performance and Achievement in Reading and Arithmetic. In Jerome Helmuth (ed) Disadvantaged Child, v. 3 [this was an amazing study with huge gains in IQ by the children, all of whom ended up with IQs of 100 and above, even as high as 139].

    Engelmann, Siegfried (1967) Teaching Reading to Children With Low Mental Ages, from Education and Training of Mentally Retarded, v.2, no.4 Council for Exceptional Children, Arlington, Va.

    Epps, S., & Tindal, G. (1987). The effectiveness of differential programming in serving students with mild handicaps: Placement options and instructional programming. In M. C. Wang, M. C. Reynolds, & H. J. Walberg (Eds.), Handbook of special education: Research and practice (vol. 1 pp. 213-248). Oxford: Pergamon Press. [ an examination of the literature on segregated class vs. inclusion placement over the period from around 1930 onward; conclusion – no benefit could be attributed to special class placement, generally speaking. They found no evidence for the efficacy of the academic programming or the different type of teaching provided]

    Wang, M. C., Anderson, K. A., & Bram, P. J. (1985). Toward an empirical data base on mainstreaming: A research synthesis of program implementation and effects. Pittsburgh: Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh.

  17. I don’t have any direct knowledge of spec ed classrooms, but I have received the impression from those who have had experience, that they can be pretty non-academic, in the sense of not expecting much, not willing to challenge/push the kids and sometimes pretty much giving the kids the answers.

    For kids with specific disabilities, such as dyslexia, there seems to be too much emphasis on accommodating the disability, not teaching kids how to compensate. That was definitely the experience of one of my relatives. The school system merely read everything to the student; the private tutor her parents hired actually taught her strategies that enabled her to do the work herself and it worked well enough that she needed no special services beyond ES and she is now attending one of the Ivies.

    As I remember the original recommendations for mainstreaming, the mildly cognitively challenged was the only group for which it was recommended. At that time, the severely disabled (cognitive, psych and/or physical) never entered the educational system; they were either in institutions or at home. In schools, tracking was the norm, so those kids would have been grouped with kids not greatly different from themselves. That’s a huge leap away from the current situation.

    At the HS level, the families I have known have chosen to have their moderately cognitively handicapped kids placed in a spec ed school, which focused on preparing kids for the workplace. They did have academics, but the focus was on the practical, not the abstract. They did not pretend to higher math, literary and historical interpretation and other areas demanding significant abstraction.


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