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The Hole in the Drive to Ban Social Promotion in School

June 14, 1998|Richard Rothstein | Richard Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute

California schools are promoting children whose performance is below "grade level." But maybe not for long. Mayor Richard Riordan has demanded an end to "social promotion." Gov. Pete Wilson proposes changing the education code to prohibit advancing students who have not "achieved a passing score on a statewide assessment." L.A. school Supt. Ruben Zacarias has made social promotion's abolition a goal.

Yet, while all denounce social promotion, none has defined what grade-level performance might be. Setting a goal for average student performance is difficult enough. Setting a minimum standard is incomparably more difficult, yet this is what the "social promotion" controversy requires.

Consider these inane instructions recently issued by the state Department of Education. They define grade-level performance as standardized test scores at the 50th percentile--we "would not want to set a standard lower than the current average performance of students in the U.S." The department's goal is 90% of students meeting grade-level standards.

To do that, the rules of arithmetic first must be revised. The 50th percentile is, by definition, the score that half the nation's students exceed and half fall below. No matter how high achievement, half the students must be below grade level, defined as the 50th-percentile score.

Ninety percent of Californians can score above the nation's 50th percentile only if we have a near-monopoly of the best and brightest performers nationwide, while less-accomplished students in other states depress national averages. How can a state whose per-pupil spending is ranked at the bottom expect to meet this expectation?

Zacarias has offered a small retreat from this foolishness. He has defined 3rd-grade literacy as the 36th percentile, not the 50th, on standardized tests. But if Zacarias wants to abolish social promotion, does he intend that more than one-third of the district's children should repeat 3rd grade? If, because of more serious social and economic problems, L.A.'s score distribution is lower than that of the nation as a whole, will the district fail the majority of 3rd graders who test below the 36th national percentile? If districts elsewhere improve their performance, will L.A. have to hold back even more students because more of them will then fall below the 36th percentile in a national distribution?

Arguments for making "below grade level" students repeat are, at first blush, appealing. If students automatically advance, perhaps they'll be less motivated to study. If they fall behind their peers, teachers cannot tailor their lessons to appropriate grade levels, but must include review material as well, which impedes other students' learning.

But any such appeal is misguided. There will always be a distribution of performance around an average. If, for example, we say 4th-grade children should read half a million words by year's end, some perfectly normal children will only have read 300,000, while others will have completed their half million the previous year. Children develop unevenly.

Varied backgrounds also predispose children to perform differently, though they receive identical instruction. Even in the best schools, children of college graduates will likely perform, on average, better than those of high school dropouts. Should we set standards so low that all can meet them if special help is available? Such standards will present little challenge to most children, resulting in social promotion. Or should we set standards near the mean, accepting that many will read much better but just as many will read far worse?

Wilson proposes mandatory summer school for students who are "below grade level" in reading. This could be a praiseworthy addition to California's school program. But with socioeconomic handicaps being what they are, summer remediation still will not help most of these students achieve average (and certainly not above-average) scores for their grade. California still will have to decide whether to retain below-average performers, or to set standards so low that nearly everyone can pass.

Not every child should be promoted, but neither should every child scoring below grade level be held back. A nuanced policy, however, requires case-by-case judgments and doesn't lend itself to glib formulas like "end social promotion."

Nonpromotion has other costs. Repeating students may be demoralized, further slowing their academic progress. If children with below-average achievement might benefit from different approaches, they're not likely to receive any in classrooms where they recently failed to excel. While age-grouping children creates academic challenges, grouping those of various ages by academic skill causes developmental and behavioral problems that schools can ill afford.

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