Of all of the controversial education policies in Florida, perhaps none causes more heated debate than the requirement that students pass the reading portion of the FCAT to advance to fourth grade.
The mandate is intended to end “social promotion,” the widespread practice of promoting students regardless of their academic proficiency. A new Manhattan Institute study indicates that the policy is leading to real academic improvement for low-performing students.
Critics of the program consider linking promotion to test results to be at best heartless and at worst devastating to a child’s academic progress. They argue that retaining students destroys their self-esteem and stunts their academic growth.
Each year, opponents of the program find sad children who will be retained because of the FCAT and parade them in front of the news cameras, insisting that the law be abandoned.
But proponents claim simply promoting low-performing students because they are a year older does them no favors. They argue that students who cannot read at the third-grade level will fall further behind when confronted with fourth-grade material, and will only continue to regress relative to their peers as the curriculum becomes more difficult in later grades.
Thus, social promotion might be like moving a child to solid foods simply because he is “at the proper age,” regardless of whether he has teethed yet. Try as he might, the child will not be able to chew the solid food well and will not thrive.
In a new empirical study, we evaluate the effect of Florida’s retention mandate on the first set of students affected by the program: third-graders in 2002-03 who failed to reach the minimum academic benchmark. We compared the academic gains made by these students with those made by the previous year’s third-graders who had the same low test scores, but who were not subject to the retention policy because it was not yet in effect.
To conduct our analysis we obtained the individual test scores of all students in the state of Florida who were in each of these groups, more than 99,000 students overall.
Our results support the use of the FCAT to make promotion decisions. Students who were retained made gains on the FCAT greater than those of promoted students by about 4 percentile points in reading and 10 percentile points in math. Low-performing students who were given another chance to master third-grade skills improved faster than students who were socially promoted.
Some might argue that these test-score gains are actually the product of manipulations of the high-stakes testing system. To check for this, we also calculated the gains made by students on the Stanford-9, a nationally respected test. The Stanford-9 is also administered to all Florida third-grade students, but no stakes are tied to it so there is no reason for anyone to manipulate the results.
We found that students made gains on the Stanford-9 consistent with those they made on the FCAT. The retention policy is producing real increases in proficiency for low-performing students, not just test manipulations.
It is important to note that the gains made by students subject to the policy and those actually retained are gains after only a single year. If proponents of the retention policy are right, then we might expect that the performance gap between low-scoring students who were retained and those who were prematurely promoted to grow as they enter later grades. We intend to track this in future research.
This study provides rigorous evidence that Florida’s retention policy is improving the academic proficiency of its lowest-performing students. The evidence indicates that the level of a student’s achievement is a better foundation for promotion decisions than the year in which he happens to have been born.
This year, when opponents of the program predictably insist, once again, that students be promoted because they have become a year older, policymakers should consider the evidence and take heart that ending social promotion in Florida is substantially improving students’ education.