State and municipal policymakers are increasingly addressing the practice of social promotion in schools—moving children along to the next grade whether or not they have mastered the curriculum—by mandating test-based grade promotion.
This paper draws conclusions about the effects of a policy limiting social promotion. To do so, it employs a methodology known as regression discontinuity, which is capable of producing causal estimates of policy effects to study the impact of Florida’s test-based promotion policy on later student achievement. Under this program, students must take an exam to automatically pass from third to fourth grade (some students scoring below the automatic promotion threshold may still advance at teacher discretion). Students who are retained in third grade also receive a rigorous remediation regime aimed at improving their long-term performance.
By studying the long-term performance of children who just barely passed the test, as well as those who were just barely left behind, it was possible to compare two essentially identical populations: one set of students who moved forward despite only borderline understanding of the material; and another set who stayed behind a year and received tutoring, mentoring, and other remedial interventions.
On average, the students who were remediated did better academically, in both the short and long term, than those who were promoted. Tellingly, the benefits of the remediation were still apparent and substantial through the seventh grade (which is as far as the data can be tracked at this point).
These results contrast with previous work cited by supporters of social promotion finding that grade retention has strong negative consequences for the student’s later academic outcomes. This paper takes the view that there is considerable reason to question the validity of much of that research because most prior studies on grade retention use methods that are flawed or inadequate. Notably, these studies do not take into account “unobserved differences” between students studied. Unobserved differences are characteristics, such as maturity level or home environment, that aren’t accounted for in the researchers' datasets, but which may have an enormous bearing on student performance.
The results of this study demonstrate that a test-based promotion policy structured similar to Florida’s policy should be expected to improve student performance relative to a policy of social promotion. Florida’s system is an example for policy makers across the country to emulate.