James W. Keefe, Learning Environments Consortium International

Social promotion is the practice of advancing students to the next grade or level of schooling before they have established proficiency in the concepts and skills required of their present grade. Retention is the flip side of this coin – holding back students from promotion because they have not met the standards of the current grade.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) reported in 1997 that more than half of teachers say that they and their colleagues are pressured by school administrators and parents not to retain students. Yet the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) advised in 2001 that an estimated 15 to 20% of all students are required to repeat one or more grades between the ages of 6 and 17, that poor and minority students are 2 to 3 times more likely to be retained, and that boys are twice as likely to be retained as girls. Students with reading and behavioral problems are also more likely to be held back. And retained students are more prone to drop out of school. The AFT suggests that more than 50% of all students entering kindergarten in large urban school districts will have to repeat at least one grade before graduating or dropping out of school.

Neither social promotion nor student retention is supported by research. A 2003 position statement on grade retention and social promotion from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) points out, among other findings, that any initial student achievement gains that accrue during the year of retention tend to decline within 2 to 3 years. A research summary of 19 empirical studies from the 1990s shows that retentions have a negative impact on student reading, math and language achievement and on student socio-emotional adjustment. And retained students as adults are more prone than non-repeaters to be unemployed, on relief, or in prison. Other research reported by the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL) indicates that social promotion, like student retention, has little impact on student achievement, but increases dropout rates, and produces graduates without the necessary employment skills.

What can be done to help borderline students? NCREL proposes five strategies that focus on preventing the cycle of failure that results in retention or social promotion. These include:

1. Intensifying learning. Schools need clearly defined standards and a rich curriculum. Students should be given more challenging and higher quality assignments that stress critical thinking. Students challenged this way do better on standardized tests than students given easier assignments.
2. Providing professional development to ensure skilled teachers. Linda Darling Hammond (1997) affirms that “teachers who are fully prepared and certified in both their discipline and in education are more highly rated and are more successful with students than are teachers without preparation, and those with greater training in learning, child development, teaching methods, and curriculum are found to be more effective than those with less.”
3. Expanding learning options. Even if all students are required to meet high standards, not all learners can achieve them in the same way. Flexible approaches to instruction such as Differentiated Instruction (Tomlinson, 1999) and Personalized Instruction (Keefe & Jenkins, 2000) enable teachers to adapt the strategies and pace of instruction to the skills and learning styles of individual students. Flexible scheduling approaches such as block scheduling and continuous progress scheduling enable both students and teachers to make better use of time and to participate in a variety of learning and assessment activities.
4. Assessing to inform teachers about student progress. Pre-instructional (diagnostic) assessment is more important to student progress in learning than end-of-term measures like final exams and standardized tests because diagnostic measures provide information necessary to sustain student progress. Performance-based assessments and other forms of “authentic” assessment like “exhibitions” and “portfolios” show what students really know and/or are able to do.
5. Intervening early and often. Early intervention involves identifying students who need more time or different strategies or more help as early as possible and providing them with ongoing assistance as long as they need it.

States with active intervention programs tend to rely on “more-of-the-same” strategies such as after-school, Saturday and summer school sessions which can be successful if they are not perceived as punitive. Advisement, diagnostic assessment, tutoring, smaller classes, longer class periods, “looping” (students stay with the same teacher for two or more years), and non-graded grouping are among the most effective intervention strategies. Family involvement and strong community support, of course, are prerequisites to success.

Additional Reading:

Darling-Hammond, L. (1997, November). Doing What Matters Most: Investing in Quality Teaching. New York: National Commission on Teaching & America's Future.

Denton, D. (2001, January). Finding Alternatives to Failure: Can States End Social Promotion and Reduce Retention Rates? Southern Regional Education Board. Available online:

National Association of School Psychologists. (2003). Position Statement on Student Grade Retention and Social Promotion. Available online:

Johnson, D. & Rudolph, A. (2001). Critical Issue: Beyond Social Promotion and Retention – Five Strategies to Help Students Succeed. North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. Available online:

Keefe, J. W. & Jenkins, J. M. (2000). Personalized Instruction: Changing Classroom Practice. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
April 15, 2004

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