Social promotion is alive and well

Most failing students are promoted to the next grade, despite laws and policies banning social promotion, reports Molly Callister on the Hechinger Report. Retention rates hovered around 2.7 percent from 1995 to 2005 and declined to 1.5 percent in 2009, according to a new study.

California’s education code says students must repeat the grade if they fail promotion “gates” at second, third, and fourth grades and eighth grade. “But there’s a catch, which exists in nearly all state retention laws: A student can be promoted if the teacher decides retention isn’t appropriate for that child,” writes Callister.

It’s better to promote failing students with their classmates, then provide extra support, says Arzie Galvez,a  Los Angeles Unified administrator.

Support may include taking double math or English, tutoring, help from aides,  summer school or credit recovery programs.

Retention doesn’t help because “the typical situation is to simply repeat a grade and not necessarily address the reasons a kid was failing in the first place,” says Russ Rumberger, professor of education at the University of California Santa Barbara.

But Marcus Winters, a professor of education at the University of Colorado, believes the extra help should be provided while the student repeats the grade.

Winters looked at retained students in Florida after a retention law was instituted in 2003. Winters narrowed the pool of students to those within a small margin both above and below the cutoff for retention, which he said was basically the difference of one or two problems on the state standardized test.

Students below the cutoff were retained and given extra support during the following year, while students above were moved on to the next grade.

“We found that the kids who received this retention and remediation treatment in third grade, there’s big positive immediate effect in those first couple of years,” Winters said. “That effect tended to fade a little bit over time, but even by the time they were in the seventh grade there was still a pretty large — not only statistically significant but really meaningful — positive effect from receiving that treatment in third grade.”

Florida’s retention rates jumped nearly a third in the 2002-2003 school year, but retention rates have fallen back to the old level.

Alberto Cortes fell behind in math, repeated fourth grade at his Los Angeles school and continued to fail, Callister reports. Expelled from his middle school in seventh grade, he persuaded the new school to skip him into eighth grade with students his own age. He failed in high school and dropped out.

Now 16, he meets one-on-one with a teacher through an alternative education program. He’s on track to graduate in the next year and a half.

“I do want to get at least my bachelor’s and my master’s,” Cortes said. “I want to do something in the medical business. But at (the time I dropped out) I always thought that I was going to end up in jail someday.”

I hate to see kids with dreams totally unconnected to reality. If he prepared to qualify for a medical technician program at his local community college, he might have a shot at “the medical business.”

About Joanne


  1. In reading Alberto’s story, chances are he’ll never make it past the first year of college in a STEM field, since he probably has no idea how hard coursework and classes will be in a medical career field. I’m agreeing with Joanne on this one, his dreams have absolutely no basis in reality, unless he starts at a community college, and if he manages to make it through that, he MIGHT have a shot.

    Though in some areas, 80% of all community college admits require one or more courses in remedial education. Which doesn”t bode well for Alberto, IMO.

  2. I’ll second that. Unfortunately, I understand that too many schools are married to the happy fantasy that “all kids can achieve their dreams” (however unrealistic), to the point that teachers and counselors may be instructed never to tell kids that anything less than a (4-yr) college degree would fit them better.

    The likelihood that this kid will have the reading, math, science and study skills for college doesn’t seem high and starting college without SAT/ACT scores indicating actual college readiness is not a harbinger of success. He sounds as if he’d be much better off starting off with a medical or nursing assistant course, getting work experience and then consider a more-demanding program.

  3. SC Math Teacher says:

    And yet the federal government still uses HS graduation rates as a criterion for rating schools.

  4. Our local BOCES ran multi-district summer schools this year, and I taught 7th and 8th grade science for it. We served three schools, each with 150-250 students per grade.
    My 8th grade sections were dropped last minute because they only had 5 failures across the three districts. Of course, each school has quite a few 15 year old eighth graders.

  5. I had a Middle School principal tell me he never retained students (He retained three, at the parents’ request, in the six years I worked with him) because the parking lot wasn’t big enough to have kids drive to school.

    Half of my student teaching assignment ( I swear this is the truth) was two periods of P.L.U.S.S. ( Positive Learning Using Study Skills). Thirty-seven kids in each class, all of whom were ninth graders who had failed both English and Math (at least) in the 8th grade. There was no textbook and no curriculum.

    I eventually just taught them Greek and Roman mythology. (Which they knew nothing about beyond Disney)

  6. Schools are run as if they are daycare centers or warehouses; academics are secondary. Proof of that lies in the fact that the bright and motivated kids are the least likely to have their academic needs met. Attention and resources disproportionately go to the least able and/or motivated. Classes, programs or schools for the former are typically met with howls of outrage and accusations of “elitism”, “racist”, “creaming” and general unfairness.

    I favor enforcing no-pass-for-failure and dropping the required schooling age to 14 or completion of 8th grade and save HS for those able and willing to do the work (which should include good vo tech programs, with math/English/sciences tailored to the needs of the specific programs).

    • Jerry Doctor says:

      I pretty much agree with your comments, especially about dropping the mandatory attendance age. Forcing these kids to stay in school is counter productive. Not only will they not learn anything when they don’t want to be there, they prevent others from learning, both by their actions and the tendency to “infect” others.

      The only thing I would add is that if we are going to let these kids leave we have a moral obligation to allow them to realize they made a mistake and provide a path for them to correct that mistake. Whether that means returning to regular classes, attending an alternative school, going to night school, or something else depends on the individual situation.

      Of course that would mean alternative schools and night schools be actual educational programs. That hasn’t been true in my district for decades.

  7. Mike in Texas says:

    Laws, both state and federal, have created incentives to social promote. My district refuses to retain kids in the younger grades, where it may help, b/c state law requires students in 5th grade to be retained if they don’t pass the state Math and Reading tests.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      I don’t understand why a requirement of retention in the 5th grade causes a lack of retention in the previous grades.

  8. Mike in Texas says:


    The statistics say a child retained twice is almost certain to drop out. Fail them in a lower grade, then the state requires retention almost certainly means a dropout.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      So the logic goes like this?

      1) Retention doesn’t work to get kids up to speed.

      2) So retaining them in K-4 will result in their failing the state math and reading tests in grade 5 and state law will then require them to be retained in grade 5.

      3) “The statistics say a child retained twice is almost certain to drop out.”

      4) Thus, a child retained in K-4 is almost certain to drop out.

      5) Thus, school personnel have an incentive to socially promote in K-4.

      • Mike in Texas says:

        You asked me how a retention in the 5th grade results in social promotion in the lower grades.

        School districts don’t want to retain in the lower grade b/c if the child is retained due to test scores in the 5th grade they are almost certain to drop out.

        School districts want to “save” the retention for 5th grade.

        • MiT, your admin makes me want to assume the fetal position in the corner, rocking, and repeatedly murmuring “Correlation, not causation…”

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          I’m glad we agree on the logic. A law meant to reduce social promotion has actually made it more likely (at least early on).

          I suppose it’s one more bit of evidence that solving a problem is rarely as simple as passing a law. And that “unintended consequences” are often lurking where you’re not looking for them.

  9. What effect does social promotion of the incapable &/or unmotivated have on the capable and motivated kids sharing their classrooms? Schools should put the needs of the able/willing first. Leveled grouping by subject would give them the education they deserve and separating struggling students, so they can have targeted help and a slower pace, might actually keep some from failing. More direct, explicit instruction also works.

  10. Momof4,

    Unfortunately, what worked 30 years ago in our public schools, would be called ‘educational racism’ today, as it’s just NOT cool to group students by ability, or implement tracking of student progress so that the high achievers can get a good education, and the average and slow learners can grasp the knowledge they need at the pace they can handle it (UGH).

    • It’s not even racism… I grew up in a predominantly white district that succumbed to parental pressure against ability groupings because it “harmed” student self esteem

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        If it was the sort of school that I think it is, populated by the sort of people I’m imagining, then tracking probably wasn’t too good for some of the parents’ self-esteem, either.