Everyone knows that you can't run before you can walk. But schools often ignore this age-old wisdom when they move students to the next grade, even if those students haven't mastered the basic skills covered in the previous grade.
The argument is that making students repeat a grade is socially disruptive, which in turn harms them academically. Apparently the logic behind this practice of "social promotion" is that making nonambulatory students practice walking might discourage them from ever running, so it is better to throw them in with the sprinters.
Florida education reformers have decided that they've had enough of social promotion. At least in third grade, Florida students have to demonstrate basic skills on the state's test to be automatically promoted to fourth grade. Exemptions are available for students who demonstrate minimal skills by alternative methods or who have special circumstances that might make repeating third grade unproductive. After adoption of this test-based promotion policy, 57 percent of low-performing third-graders repeat third grade, compared with only 6 percent previously.
Did this big increase in retention of low-performing third-graders stunt their academic growth, as the advocates of social promotion expect? Not at all.
Using individual student data provided by the Florida Department of Education, we compared the performance of students who were retained under the policy to that of other students very similar to them who were socially promoted. We found that two years after the retention decision, retained students outperformed similar promoted students by the equivalent of between 3 and 5 percentile points on the state's reading test. Students learn more when they are taught at the grade level appropriate to their skills than if they are simply moved to the next grade regardless of their skill level.
Some might contend these benefits are actually quite modest, given the cost of keeping students enrolled in school for one additional year. However, it is important to keep in mind that retained students have higher proficiency even though they receive instruction at a lower academic level than do socially promoted students. In fact, on average, those retained under the policy entered the fifth grade last fall with higher levels of academic proficiency than socially promoted students had after they had completed the fifth grade.
Furthermore, the gains made by retained students relative to those who were socially promoted increased from the first to the second year after the retention decision. These results suggest that socially promoted students continued to fall farther behind their peers as material becomes more difficult but their skills have not advanced. We intend to follow these students for as long as possible to find out whether retained students continue to improve relative to socially promoted students as they progress through school and instruction becomes even more advanced.
The results of our study show that low-performing students in Florida have benefited significantly from being held back in the third grade under the state's policy. Though it is often heartbreaking to retain students when we see the disappointment on their faces, the evidence from Florida indicates that on average, they benefit in the longer run. Students do better when they learn how to walk before they are required to run.