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 Home > Articles > Ending Social Promotion: A Guide for Educators and State and Local Leaders (May 1999)

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Note: This document is from "Taking Responsibility for Ending Social Promotion: A Guide for Educators and State and Local Leaders — May 1999"

Taking Responsibility for Ending Social Promotion:
A Guide for Educators and State and Local Leaders

Executive Summary

Working to ensure that all students have the best chance to achieve high standards of learning demands that educators and state and local leaders take responsibility for giving students the opportunity to meet high expectations and for ending the practice of social promotion--where students are allowed to continue to pass through school with their peers without satisfying academic requirements or meeting performance goals at key grades. In his 1999 State of the Union address, President Clinton called for an end to social promotion. In order to help educators and state and local leaders meet that challenge, the President directed the U.S. Department of Education to draw on lessons from research and practice to prepare this guide on effective approaches to ending social promotion.

While the practice of passing along students who are unprepared is often hidden, there are indications that the problem is prevalent in many of our nation's schools. More than half of teachers surveyed in a recent poll stated that they had promoted unprepared students in the last school year, often because they see no alternative. Research indicates that from 10 to 15 percent of young adults who graduate from high school and have not gone further--up to 340,000 high school graduates each year--cannot balance a checkbook or write a letter to a credit card company to explain an error on a bill. If one examines national assessments of student performance, upwards of a third of students score below the basic level of proficiency. At the same time, analysis of the 1996 Current Population Statistics indicates that only about 3 percent of students are two or more years over age for their grade (a good indication that they have been retained at least once).

The issue of ending social promotion has too often been posed as a debate over the relative benefits and disadvantages of promotion versus repeating a grade (retention). Yet we know that neither strategy is appropriate for students who are not meeting high academic standards. Students who are promoted without regard to their achievement tend to fall even further behind their classmates as they move through school, and those who do not drop out usually finish without having the knowledge and skills expected of high school graduates. At the same time, research shows that holding students back to repeat a grade without changing instructional strategies is ineffective. The achievement of retained students, after repeating a grade, still lags behind the achievement of their peers, and retention also greatly increases the likelihood that a student will drop out of school. Being held back twice makes dropping out a virtual certainty. Retention disproportionately affects minority and economically disadvantaged students.

To pass students along in school when they are unprepared or retain them without addressing their needs denies students access to opportunities at the next level of schooling, in postsecondary education, and in the workplace. Both policies send a message to students that little is expected from them, that they have little worth, and that they do not warrant the time and effort it would take to help them be successful in school. The cost of these policies extends beyond individual students to society as a whole. Employers have little confidence in a high school diploma as proof that graduates are prepared with the requisite skills. Colleges and businesses spend resources providing remedial training for students and employees. Lack of education and skills is highly associated with poverty, crime, and violence among youth and young adults.

Strategies for Ending 
Social Promotion

Comprehensive approaches to ending social promotion require leadership, resources, and community support to:

  • Set clear objectives for students to meet performance standards at key grades.
  • Identify student needs early in order to apply appropriate instructional strategies.
  • Emphasize early childhood literacy.
  • Focus on providing high-quality curriculum and instruction.
  • Provide professional development that deepens teachers' content knowledge and improves instructional strategies to engage all children in learning.
  • Set out explicit expectations for all stakeholders, including families and communities, in efforts to help end social promotion.
  • Provide summer school for students who are not meeting high academic standards.
  • Extend learning time through before- and after-school programs, tutoring, homework centers, and year-round schooling.
  • Reduce class sizes in the primary grades.
  • Keep students and teachers together for more than one year and use other effective student grouping practices.
  • Develop transitional and dropout prevention programs for middle and high school students.
  • Hold schools accountable by publicly reporting school performance, rewarding school improvement, and intervening in low-performing schools.
    With pressure increasing to hold students accountable for performance and to end social promotion, and research pointing to negative findings related to retention, educators may feel they have few choices. The results of both policies are unacceptably high dropout rates, especially for poor and minority students, and inadequate knowledge and skills for students. Neither practice closes the learning gap for low-achieving students, and neither practice is an appropriate response to the academic needs of students who have not mastered required coursework.

    This policy guide offers better options to social promotion and retention by focusing on interventions to help all students meet high expectations. While raising our awareness of the important need for students to meet performance requirements at key grades, ending social promotion is not a stand-alone policy that can be imposed on students. Taking responsibility for ending social promotion requires a comprehensive effort involving all stakeholders to addresses multiple problems and a variety of student needs.

    It starts with setting high standards and making them count by holding schools accountable for preparing students to meet the standards. A comprehensive approach to ending social promotion requires early identification of student needs, research-based strategies for improving learning, and timely intervention for students who need extra assistance to meet standards. It demands that all classrooms have well-prepared teachers and high-quality curricula. It calls for increased family involvement at home and in the school, and it calls for greater community support of educational activities.

    The guide shows how states and districts can set a policy context for high expectations and success, how schools can prevent and intervene to reduce school failure, and how these strategies can be sustained through ongoing support for school improvement. The guide concludes with an inventory of federal resources available to help states, districts, and schools end social promotion.

    Taking Responsibility

    There is widespread agreement among the public that schools need to set higher standards than now exist for what students should know and be able to do to be promoted. The first step in taking responsibility for ending social promotion requires states and districts to develop clear and challenging standards for all students. There must be clear objectives for students to meet performance standards at key grades (e.g., every child should be able to read well and independently by the end of the third grade).

    States and districts also need to set explicit policies about the promotion of students and must take responsibility for making sure that students receive the help they need to meet the requirements -- including providing the necessary resources for schools to help students, and intervening in schools that fail to provide students with the skills they need to succeed. Districts such as Chicago, Tacoma (Washington), Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Corpus Christi (Texas), and New York City, and states such as Delaware, Florida, South Carolina, Texas, and Oregon have stepped up their efforts to improve student achievement by adopting policies to end social promotion and providing support and assistance to students who are unprepared for the next grade.

    Assessment is an important issue in efforts to end social promotion. Schools must be able to accurately measure student progress toward achieving performance standards, but education leaders must take care when deciding how assessments are used to influence student promotion decisions. There must be adequate educational justification for the use of the tests, evidence of validity and reliability for the populations tested, adequate prior notice to parents, and adequate opportunity for students to become familiar with the curriculum being tested. States, districts, and schools should not rely upon one assessment as the sole measure for making educationally sound promotion decisions. Rather, a rich variety of measures of student progress are central to making student promotion decisions and diagnosing problems early.

    High standards, clear policies, and high-quality assessments are the starting point from which other practices must be developed and aligned. Schools must concentrate on providing high-quality curriculum and instruction aligned with high standards and get all stakeholders--including family and community members--involved in helping all students reach high standards.

    Starting Early

    To prepare students to meet high standards we must start early. By having a range of positive early learning experiences, young children broaden their knowledge and develop their skills. Early childhood education can help educators identify children possibly at risk of school failure and take steps to ensure their readiness for school and successful learning in the early grades.

    Starting early is particularly important to help students develop literacy skills. Reading must be introduced to children at a very young age, integrated into preschool activities, and reinforced at home. Across the nation, educators are recognizing the significance of early intervention. Chicago's "Cradle to Classroom" program works with 700 young mothers each year to give them the skills they need to stimulate their children's minds as well as to care for them physically, emotionally, and socially. The city's "Parents as Teachers" program trains parents to visit the homes of 1,500 preschoolers to help them develop preliteracy skills. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg the district has directed the great majority of its Title I funds toward its "Bright Beginnings" prekindergarten program. In collaboration with Head Start, the program gives four-year-old children a literary-rich, full day prekindergarten experience.

    Strengthening Learning Opportunities in the Classroom

    If students are to be held more accountable for their academic performance and made to accept consequences for not meeting standards at key grades, schools must provide adequate opportunities for students to meet expectations on time. Educators must use data effectively to identify at-risk students before they fall too far behind. They must ensure that all students have access to good teachers by recruiting qualified teachers, providing teachers with high-quality professional development opportunities, establishing mentoring and networking relationships among teachers, and providing incentives for good teachers to work in the most needy schools.

    Along with ending the practice of social promotion we must provide extra help for children after school and in the summer so that we don't just identify children as failures, but instead say, we're going to give you more help until you succeed.

    President Clinton, July 1998

    Educators and leaders also must take advantage of research-based practices to enhance student achievement; these include flexible student grouping, keeping teachers and students together for more than one year (looping), cooperative learning, tutoring, and reducing class size. Schools must also strengthen learning opportunities for students with limited English proficiency, migrant students, and students with disabilities by providing them with appropriate educational services and accommodating their unique needs. This guide highlights examples of transitional programs for non-English speaking immigrants and distance learning projects for migrant students.

    Extending Learning Time

    Programs that extend learning time--such as summer school, after-school programs, and year-round schooling--can help prepare students academically and developmentally to move to the next grade. Mandatory summer school is a central feature of efforts to end social promotion in Chicago, New Haven, Boston, and Washington D.C. The 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, for example, enables schools to provide expanded learning opportunities for children after school, on weekends, and during the summer in a safe, drug-free, and supervised environment. The centers offer homework assistance, intensive tutoring in basic skills, counseling to prevent drug use and violence, and enrichment in core academic subjects, as well as opportunities to participate in recreational activities, the arts, technology education programs, and services for children and youth with disabilities. The centers are supported through school-community partnerships that include public and nonprofit agencies and organizations, local businesses, and educational entities.

    Helping Students Who Still Do Not Meet Standards

    For students who still have difficulty meeting standards despite prevention and early intervention efforts, repeating a grade with the same instruction over again has been found to be ineffective. These students need alternatives that help them develop the skills they need to achieve. But intervention services usually diminish in the upper grades, just as these students face tough challenges and peer pressure that can seriously affect their academic lives. Establishing effective high school transition and dropout prevention programs can help. For example, Long Beach (CA) Unified School District assigns eighth-graders who fail two or more classes to the Long Beach Preparatory Academy, a year-long alternative program that has smaller classes than regular ninth-grade classes. Counselors work closely with students and their families. In the program's first year of operation, almost 90 percent of participants earned promotion to the ninth grade.

    Holding Schools Accountable for Performance and Helping Them Improve

    Ending social promotion requires real accountability for results, and this accountability must begin with the schools. Many states and districts have taken steps to hold schools more accountable for student performance. Thirty-two states publish annual school report cards. Some states distribute the report cards to parents, and the contents of the reports often are published by local newspapers. State, district, and school leaders alike claim that this form of public accountability can be a motivating force in school improvement efforts. To take responsibility for ending social promotion also means that states and districts must intervene to improve schools that are failing, as well as reward schools that do make significant progress in helping all students meet performance standards.

    President Clinton and the U.S. Department of Education are committed to helping to end social promotion. This guide concludes with an inventory of resources from the U.S. Department of Education to help states, districts, and schools in the effort. The inventory starting on page 58 describes federal programs and assistance available and lists helpful documents.
    Recent Legislation to Expand Learning Opportunities
    And to Help End Social Promotion

    National Class Size Reduction Initiative: In October 1998 President Clinton signed into law legislation that will provide $1.2 billion to districts to recruit, hire, and train teachers and help reduce class sizes, particularly in the early grades.

    Reading Excellence Act: Two years ago President Clinton issued a challenge to help all children be able to read well and independently by the end of third grade. In 1998, the President signed legislation that will provide $260 million to help more that 500,000 children to develop literacy skills.

    GEAR UP: This new competitive-grant program provides $120 million to support mentoring, tutoring, enrichment programs, and other activities designed to increase awareness and college-going rates among low-income students. 

    Expansion of 21st Century Learning Centers: $200 million in 1999 will help expand learning opportunities for an additional 250,000 children in a supervised, safe, and drug-free environment. The program has established a priority for projects designed to assist students in meeting or exceeding state or local performance standards in core academic subjects.

    Taking responsibility for ending social promotion involves holding firm to the commitment to help all students reach high standards. It requires that schools and students be held accountable for performance. It requires a focused use of resources. And it demands leadership and a sense of collective responsibility that can only develop when expectations and consequences are clearly communicated within the schools and with parents and the community. Truly embracing the idea that all children can learn--and making sure that all children do--requires that we all take responsibility for ending social promotion.

    For the full Memorandum, go to:

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