Too Many Students Rely on Social Promotion

Despite my efforts in making sure that students were updated about their grades, many times they really didn't see a connection in their mastery of the work and their final grades. Eventually after reviewing all of the student records and in all of that data (attendance, test scores, etc.) I realized the real issue. Most of my students were in high school due to social promotion.
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"How did I fail? I did all of my work! You must not like me...I came to class everyday." These were the protests I heard year after year from my former ninth graders as I handled the arduous task of doing what every teacher hates the most -- explaining to children their first semester grades in my class.

Throughout the semester during every conference that I had with some students, they seemed to be genuinely confused about their grades. Some students could not fathom that they did not earn an "A" in the class despite being given progress reports that showed otherwise. Some reasoned that if they made an "A" on the state standardized exams they should naturally have an A in the class. While the other students were bewildered about how a "couple" (their words, not mine) assignments could bring "down" their grades so drastically.

By the end of the day, I was mentally exhausted from explaining to children that the way grades are calculated in high school is completely different then how they are calculated in elementary and middle school.

The longer I thought about these conferences, the more confused I was. Despite my efforts in making sure that students were updated about their grades, many times they really didn't see a connection in their mastery of the work and their final grades. As I reflected on my grading practices I realized that there was a serious breakdown on the meaning of grades and what the expectations were to earn a passing grade in the course.

So year after year before I addressed this concern in my class, I dug a little "deeper" into my student's data from kindergarten to eighth grade. Eventually after reviewing all of the student records and in all of that data (attendance, test scores, etc.) I realized the real issue.

Most of my students were in high school due to social promotion.

Even more disturbing was that many students were entering high school with reading levels at (or below) a sixth grade level. In addition, there were students who had attended summer school from every summer from 3rd grade until 8th grade! The only thing that stood in between these students entering high school was a retention hearing during the summer after their eigth grade year with their counselors and a representative from the high school they were "zoned" for. That's right in order to move to another grade level all students had to do was show up with their parents and promise to do better in high school and they were approved to come with their class the following fall.

Social promotion is apparently the gift that continues to give long after middle school.

According to Ed Week, social promotion is defined as the practice of passing students along from grade to grade with their peers even if the students have not satisfied academic requirements or met performance standards at key grades. Practiced in most middle schools in the south, the practice's effectiveness is often questioned by high school teachers where students are expected to actually earn credits in order to graduate.

Despite me being shocked by my research, social promotion is nothing new for me working in an urban school. Every year in August we are met with the same bewildered group of ninth graders eager to start high school, but completely clueless with how different the world of obtaining credits really is compared to their previous schools. In addition, as we give students a battery of tests during the first several weeks of school, we find students who are barely reading at a 3rd grade level and who seriously lack skills in computation and literacy.

In addition to the academic issues, we also notice a pattern in behavior with these same students such as:

  • lack of organization
  • immaturity with the opposite sex
  • the lack of accountability for their academics while in high school
  • the complaining about the amount of work given in high school and subsequently have to ask for extra credit
  • an indifference when they fail several core classes.

The task of trying to correct the above behaviors is not only draining, but is something that can not be effectively addressed unless there is a pipeline from kindergarten to high school that supports students who are not academically or behaviorally ready.

However, instead of working with a pipeline type of program we as teachers are usually on an island alone trying to correct the problem. Students are not surprised they didn't do the work, but due to 'educational reform' initiatives (especially at the elementary and middle school levels) that don't allow teachers in previous grades to actually hold students back when they don't demonstrate their academic readiness to move to the next grade level.

Research has shown that the practice of having students repeat a grade -- retention -- often has negative educational consequences, such as increasing their chances of dropping out of school (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). However, no one really discusses the negative drawbacks that directly affect teaching and learning in any school that practices social promotion despite the research allowing students to move to grades they're not ready for it:

  • gives children a fake sense of academic accomplishment
  • does not give the middle and elementary school teachers the ability to have any real 'grit' behind their grades.
  • promotes students who are not academically ready to go to the next grade.
  • lends to the senseless practice of 'make up work'
  • does not prepare students for any type of post secondary school where grades are indeed final
While social promotion has been around for decades, in the last twenty years there has been a considerate amount of 'backlash' to the practice of social promotion. Teachers are tired of students being passed despite them lacking academic skills to be successful in the next grade. So if social promotion has so many negatives, why is it even practiced?

The stark reality is that social promotion is a cruel joke that education reformist play on our children. Instead of helping address student's areas of deficit, it 'masks' it as 'not a big deal' and students and parents never deal with it. Some students make it all the way to ninth grade with no concept of how grades and work intertwine. Through social promotion we've told kids that it doesn't matter about academic readiness but instead about socially where you belong. While their are critics that cite the effects failure has on children, they pale in comparison to the effects of not holding our children accountable.

In order to stop the number of students who drop out in ninth grades, urban schools have to do a better job in creating a pipeline from elementary to high school helping address students who repeatedly fail their classes. The first step would be to see why a student fails a class.

Did they not complete any work? Are they lacking the skills in order to master the work? Are they habitually absent from class? For every child that fails a class, there's a reason behind that failure and as schools we have to examine those core issues. When looking into those reasons, there are going to be solutions that will make teachers, parents and communities uncomfortable. Maybe the schools need to reexamine grading policies that punish kids for their socioeconomic status. For example is it fair to assign copious amounts of homework to students who you know are homeless? In addition to schools, parents need to be called 'on the carpet' about practices that make their children unsuccessful. Does it really benefit kids for their parents to support their children when they know they are wrong? Last but certainly not least, the community needs mentors to give these kids the support they need to be successful inside and outside of school.

So what are teachers to do when they encounter students who have 'made it' into their classrooms by the 'grace' of social promotion? Continue to do what we have always do -- attempt to work with those students through remediation, tutorial, targets RTI strategies to address their areas of need and pray. If we don't, there will be another ninth grader who figuratively 'bites the dust' and learns that in high school is a another playing field.

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