SOCIAL PROMOTION AND STUDENT RETENTION
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.
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.
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: http://www.sreb.org/programs/srr/pubs/alternatives/AlternativesToFailure.pdf
National Association of School Psychologists. (2003). Position Statement on Student Grade Retention and Social Promotion. Available online: http://www.nasponline.org/information/pospaper_graderetent.html
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: http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/students/atrisk/at800.htm
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