Since its inception, America has embraced a success-driven culture. To prepare our students for this environment, our country devotes enormous time and resources for students to develop the requisite skills for success. What to do when students are not making adequate academic progress is at the center of the debate nationally between social and merit promotion. The choices educators make in this arena will have a profound impact on schools and ultimately our communities for years to come.

Entwined in the debate is the traditional heterogenous class grouping, with mixed ability levels present in every classroom. Teachers are expected to teach grade-level content to all students—who are expected to make satisfactory progress with the material by year’s end. For most students, this structure meets their learning needs. However, each year there are students who have not made adequate growth despite the interventions and assistance provided by the school.

Pros and Cons

Proponents of social promotion, keeping students together with their same-age peers regardless of ability levels, argue it is better for the psychological and social needs of struggling students than grade retention. Studies are frequently cited which say retention has many unintended consequences, leaving affected students more likely to leave school before graduation, develop a negative self-image, display behavior issues, and lose interest in school.

The practice of social promotion is sometimes coupled with extra interventions and targeted supports for struggling students to help close the achievement gaps they are experiencing in the new grade. Some educators advocate for social promotion because “retention usually duplicates an entire year of schooling. Other options—such as summer school, before-school and after-school programs, or extra help during the school day—could provide equivalent extra time in more instructionally effective ways,” according to a 2008 article in Educational Leadership. It also is mentioned among supporters how the financial burden of retaining students has negatively impacted school systems nationwide when the struggle for proper education funding is highly contentious.

On the other side, advocates of merit promotion maintain that advancement to the next grade level should be based on data to indicate the students are ready for new content. Proponents argue that promoting students who are failing does not correct the underlying issues of low performance and achievement gaps. In fact, they argue it will likely lead to increased struggles in school as new material is taught to students who do not have the proper foundation to master it. They claim that high school dropout rates and other retention-related issues stem from being in learning environments without the proper skillsets to be successful. Supporters argue it is difficult for classroom teachers to meet all the needs of their students when they vary so widely, being at times grade levels apart. Proponents note how the world outside of school is merit-driven and argue that to best prepare our students for that world our schools should operate that way as well.

Help Students Now

Many states have instituted laws banning social promotion. Sixteen states and Washington, D.C., have passed laws mandating that students be proficient in third-grade reading ability or face retention. It is noted that this skill is an “important indicator of their future success. We know that children who are not reading proficiently by third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school on time and are at much greater risk of dropping out” (Education Commission of the States, 2016).

However, there is “a catch, which exists in nearly all state retention laws: A student can be promoted if the teacher decides retention isn’t appropriate for that child,” according to a 2014 Hechinger Report article. This makes understanding the impacts of these decisions even more important.

It is vital for both sides of this debate to understand that schools have the power to help students learn long before promotion decisions need to be made. Research indicates that effective “evidence-based instruction and intervention, screening, and progress monitoring, will likely reduce the need for educators to choose between two undesirable options, grade retention and social promotion, to meet the needs of students who are struggling,” according to a National Association of School Psychologists 2011 white paper. This is a step in the right direction to ensure that our instruction meets children in the places they are.

Educators should strive for a “targeted approach that addresses students’ academic, social, and mental health issues and links specific evidence-based interventions to a student’s individual needs,” according to a 2012 article in Principal Leadership. This is at the foundation of Response to Intervention programs being implemented nationwide. Our leaders should seek to strengthen and support these measures to ensure our students are being instructed on their specific learning deficits to improve their learning more efficiently.

Address Achievement Issues

Regardless of educators’ positions on promotion practices, it is evident that our nation needs to address the subpar performance of our students compared to that of many nations around the world. Despite spending enormous amounts of money per student each year, we do not see the results that one would expect with that cost. Our students routinely score in the middle of the pack on standardized tests given to other students in different countries.

According to the most recent NAEP test results from 2015, high school seniors in the U.S. scored proficiency levels of 37 percent in reading and 25 percent in math. These results indicate that our students are struggling. They indicate that there is a disconnect between promotion rates and achievement rates. Attaining a high school diploma is not meaningful if students do not have the implied skills attached to such a degree. Our focus must be in ensuring that our students are ready for the challenges of making a living in a competitive world.

In 2015, American high schools had an all-time graduation rate high of 83.2 percent. This is something that should be celebrated. However, disparities for racial and ethnic groups still exist. And many students are underprepared for college-level work, with research showing that anywhere from “40 percent to 60 percent of first-year college students require remediation in English, math, or both,” according to a 2016 American Progress article.

This must serve as a rallying cry to improve the quality of our schools nationwide. We also must advocate for common, accurate reporting of social promotion and retention rates among all states to help our country continue to properly assess and address the issues concerning our students. Keeping these numbers inaccessible does no one any favors.

Holistic Approach

To improve the educational capacity of our students, we need to take a more holistic approach in how we measure student success. Because of our success-driven culture, many leaders and educators are fixated on sending seemingly every student to college. We know that careers requiring a college diploma typically have higher salaries than those which do not. This drive to improve the livelihood of our students is noble but at times misplaced.

We must acknowledge that not every student has the ability or drive to succeed in college. There are many opportunities available through trade schools and other training which can help students find successful careers. Tailoring our students’ education to their needs and desires will help our system become more efficient in growing our next generation of responsible, self-sustaining citizens.

To accomplish lasting success for our students, understanding that intelligence levels and interests vary among them is key. Giving periodic IQ assessments to all students starting at an early age would be helpful in gaining a true picture for academic strengths. Also, prescribing interest inventory tests would help educators see what students are passionate about and where they might be successful in future employment.

Students should be educated on possible career paths that will meet with their financial and psychological needs. Professionals from related fields should be encouraged to visit schools and discuss with students how their careers are related to what students are studying daily. In addition, increasing supports for technological and vocational training is a critical component of a successful school system. We also should check in with graduates after leaving school to see how they are navigating adult life and use this information to adjust our practices as needed to ensure that all students are gaining the proper preparation for life to come.

In conclusion, the debate between social and merit promotion will continue for the foreseeable future. As important as this debate is, our focus should be on early intervention strategies aimed at reducing the likelihood that our students will be in danger of failure. Our communities must continue to ensure that students are responsible for their learning, and adults are responsible for ensuring that this learning is appropriate and adequate for each child’s needs. When this occurs, our education system will flourish by helping all students maximize their potential as human beings to effect positive change in their communities. This will be our true hallmark of a success-driven culture.

Travis Jolley is a fourth-grade math and science teacher at Allen Elementary in Soddy Daisy, Tennessee.

Around NSBA

A group of high school students paint on canvases during an art class.

2023 Magna Awards Grand Prize Winners

School districts rethink and reinvent education for their students, staff, and communities.