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School Officials Shouldn't Go Wobbly On Social Promotion

September 14, 2006

By Jay P. Greene

Now’s not the time to go wobbly on social promotion. Since the 1990s, the Baltimore City school district led the way in ending social promotion — moving students to the next grade level regardless of academic proficiency.

However, the school system in 2004 stopped requiring students to achieve minimum scores on a standardized test to enter certain grades.

New evidence from Florida suggests Baltimore’s students might benefit if the school district reversed this decision.

In a new study for the Manhattan Institute, we find Florida has substantially improved the reading proficiency of the state’s most vulnerable students by ending social promotions.

Some states and large school districts have sought to end social promotion at the same time that Baltimore has moved back towards it.

Florida and Texas, as well as the large urban districts of New York City and Chicago, require students to pass a standardized test in order to move into certain grades.

As in Baltimore, school systems hotly debate the benefits and drawbacks of ending social promotion.

Those in favor of social promotion say retaining students will harm their self-esteem, later damaging their academic achievement.

However, those opposed to the practice argue promoting a child before he is academically prepared does him no favors.

They suggest that socially promoted students will fall further behind their peers as material becomes more difficult.

In Florida, students must reach a minimal benchmark on the state’s standardized reading test before entering fourth grade.

Students can earn exemptions from the policy under certain conditions, but the default action for the state’s lowest performing students is to be retained.

Using individual student data provided by the Florida Department of Education, we compared the performance of students retained under the policy to socially promoted students very similar to them.

We found that two years after repeating a grade, retained students outperformed similar promoted students by 3 percentile and 5 percentile points on the state’s reading test.

At first glance, these results might not seem very large. However, it is important to recall that retained students achieve higher academic proficiency even though they receive instruction at a lower level then socially promoted students.

Our results suggest students who repeat a grade are more literate when they enter the fifth grade than socially promoted students after they leave the fifth grade.

Also, we find that the academic improvements from retention under Florida’s policy grew from the first to the second year after the student was retained.

This is consistent with the idea that socially promoted students fall further behind their peers in later grades as material becomes more difficult.

We plan to follow these students for as long as possible in order to see if the benefits of retention continue to accumulate in later years.

To be certain, more research is necessary before we can fully understand the impact of ending social promotion and the ways to develop these policies to make them as effective as possible.

However, our findings from Florida indicate that ending social promotion can substantially improve student achievement. Baltimore’s children may be better off if their school district readopted its policy requiring that students demonstrate that they actually have the skills they need to succeed before they are promoted.

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