Nine states and three of the nation’s biggest cities have adopted mandates intended to end “social promotion”—promoting students to the next grade level regardless of their academic proficiency. These policies require students in certain grades to reach a minimum benchmark on a standardized test in order to move on to the next grade. Florida, Texas, and seven other states, as well as the cities of New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, have adopted mandatory promotion tests; these school systems encompass 30% of all U.S. public-school students. Proponents of such policies claim that students must possess basic skills in order to succeed in higher grades, while opponents argue that holding students back discourages them and only pushes them further behind.
This study uses individual-level data provided by the Florida Department of Education to evaluate the initial effects of Florida’s policy requiring students to reach a minimum threshold on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) to be promoted to the 4th grade. It examines the gains made in one year on math and reading tests by all Florida 3rd graders in the first cohort subject to the retention policy who scored below the necessary threshold, comparing them to all Florida 3rd graders in the previous year with the same low test scores, for whom the policy was not yet in force. Because some students subject to the policy obtained special exemptions and were promoted, the study also uses an instrumental regression analysis to separately measure the effects of actually being retained. The study measures gains made by students on both the high-stakes FCAT and the Stanford-9, a nationally respected standardized test that is also administered to all Florida students, but with no stakes tied to the results.
The authors intend to follow the same two cohorts of students in future studies to evaluate the effects of this new policy over time. The findings of this study, evaluating Florida’s program after its first year, include:
- Low-performing students subject to the retention policy made gains in reading greater than those of similar students not subject to the policy by 1.85 percentile points on both the FCAT and the Stanford-9.
- Low-performing students subject to the retention policy made gains in math greater than those of similar students not subject to the policy by 4.76 percentile points on the FCAT and 4.43 percentile points on the Stanford-9.
- Low-performing students who were actually retained made gains in reading greater than those of similar students who were promoted by 4.10 percentile points on the FCAT and 3.45 percentile points on the Stanford-9.
- Low-performing students who were retained made gains in math greater than those of similar students who were promoted by 9.98 percentile points on the FCAT and 9.26 percentile points on the Stanford-9.