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The San Diego Union-Tribune


California Should end Social Promotion

December 09, 2004

By Jay P. Greene

It is no secret that California’s education system is in need of repair. According to our calculations, a full third of students in California dropped out of high school in the class of 2001, and the state consistently performs poorly on nationally respected standardized tests. With no clear answer to the state’s education woes in sight, California might look to what is working in other struggling school systems for guidance.

Many large school systems, including eight states and the underperforming urban districts of Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, are attempting to turn their schools around by requiring students to pass a standardized test in order to be promoted to certain key grade levels. The mandates are intended to end “social promotion,” the widespread practice of promoting students at the end of the school year 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 such programs 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 programs find sad children who will be retained because of a standardized test 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 that ending social promotion through standardized testing has had in Florida. Third-grade students in Florida are required to reach a minimum score on the state’s reading test to be promoted to the fourth grade. Florida has turned to this reform in an attempt to improve its dreadful public schools – we calculate that only 55 percent of Florida’s students graduate from high school, far worse even than in California.

We analyzed the test scores of the first set of students affected by Florida’s program: third-graders in 2002-03 who failed to reach the minimum academic benchmark. We compared the academic gains made by these students to 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 standardized tests to make promotion decisions. Students who were retained made test score gains 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.

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 perform future research following the same cohorts of students over time to see if this happens.

This study provides rigorous evidence that objective retention policies based on standardized tests improve the academic proficiency of low-performing students. If California is to begin to provide its students with a higher quality education its policy-makers would do well to look at Florida’s example and tackle social promotion head-on. 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.

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