Quality or Quantity: If Social Promotion or Retention Doesn’t Work, What Will?
Part I- My "thinking out loud" on holding students back, having students move on to the next grade, or is there something else that will help students better?
Before I get into this, let me give you a little backstory of where I’m coming from. Yes, the pandemic learning gap is real. Some kids learned at home with little supervision because many parents were also transitioning to work from home. They were not only responsible for keeping an eye on their children to make sure that what was once visible to teachers- focusing, on the correct assignment, logged into the correct platform or app, nothing in their hands to distract them- but parents were also now responsible for keeping up with their own work at the same time. Some parents are essential workers who couldn’t stay home. And a lot of kids suffered.
One kiddo in particular, showed up for tutoring with me in July 2021. He was an incoming third grader. I started to work with him to see what he knew and what he didn’t know. I found out that he didn’t know how to ask for help, but out of habit sat there and glared at me when he didn’t know something. I had to write sentence starters of how to ask for help or clarification on a Post-It for him and brought it out to lay on the table every session so he could learn to communicate his needs. Beyond the social emotional needs of that, he also was about 2 years behind where he should be. I kept going backwards to cover material from earlier and earlier grades. But when I asked him to write the alphabet for me and he got muddled somewhere in the middle from F to P, I got really worried.
Incoming third grader who didn’t know his alphabet. How was he continually passed onto the next grade?
Fast forward to July 2022 and he is still behind by about 2 years and his report card has the equivalent of Ds and Fs across the board save for P.E. and art. But the shocker was he was still being passed on to fourth grade. He struggles with retelling a simple story (like a movie he watched recently), writing a complete sentence, and with following directions and listening. I asked his parents what the explanation from the school was and it was that they usually don’t hold back students until the 6th grade.
This shocked me. As a former high school teacher, I used to wonder how I had seniors, who when tested their reading level at the beginning of the year, tested at a 7th grade reading comprehension. Five grade levels below at which they were supposed to be reading. I used to wonder why students were missing so many skills and why they struggled so much but were allowed to continue on to the next grade. In education terms, this is called social promotion.
“Social promotion is 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,” (Doherty)
When I taught, I had 12th graders in my class who hadn’t passed either 9th, 10th, or 11th grade English prior to being in my class. If skills are supposed to increase at the next grade level, what are we doing passing kids on to the next level thinking that miraculously they would succeed? And this was ten years before the pandemic.
Another complication is that the research on retention says holding kids back is not effective either. Research says the effects of retention wear off after the first few years (Kamenetz).
“The students who were held back did better in the first few years. Over time, the effects faded, but they still had higher GPAs and took fewer remedial courses in high school. Ultimately, though, there was no discernible impact on high school graduation rates. This is significant, because being overage for one's grade has long been considered in itself a risk factor for dropping out.” (Kamenetz)
“It's important to note here that not every student who scored too low was held back. English language learners and special education students, for example, were generally promoted anyway, and teachers have discretion to promote general education students who they think can succeed in the next grade.” (Kamenetz)
However, the research on enrolling children older in kindergarten, rather than younger, has huge benefits. “Children who start school at an older age do better than their younger classmates and have better odds of attending college and graduating from an elite institution. That's according to a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Many parents already delay enrolling their children in school, believing they'll do better if they're a bit older. It's sort of "academic red-shirting," says one of the study's authors, David Figlio, an economist at Northwestern University, using a term that originated in college athletics and refers to recruits who are held out of games for a year.” (Ydstie) This suggests that the older age of children will help with mental and social maturity to cope in a classroom beginning in kindergarten.
Even one of my high school students has complained that red-shirting in sports is looked at as “okay” and alright. He said that a student he played volleyball against was a full year older, and a lot bigger, than he was. So it’s okay to do in sports, but frowned upon in academics? Why?
This data is supported by the findings in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outsiders as well. Gladwell’s research corroborates this and explains that with children playing hockey, the ones who were born soon after the January 1st cutoff date, versus later in the year like November or December, had a full 11 or 12 months of “living” over the other children born later in the year. So, they routinely made the All-Star team over the children who were born later in the year. But then I question, how do we determine which kids would benefit from a later kindergarten start or a repeat year?
In some cases, social promotion and retention will not work, so what will? In an education system where funds will always be tight, what supports should be created to help students who are moved to the next grade level, but are clearly not ready, academically or socially?
Is it then the parent's responsibility to hire extra support and help for their child? What do you think? What do we do when it really does take a village to raise a child?
Stay tuned for part II to this thought where real world consequences affect the whole community.
Doherty, Kathryn M. “Social Promotion.” Education Week, 14 Dec. 2020, https://www.edweek.org/leadership/social-promotion/2004/09#:~:text=Social%20promotion%20is%20the%20practice,performance%20standards%20at%20key%20grades.
Kamenetz, Anya. “Study: Holding Kids Back a Grade Doesn't Necessarily Hold Them Back.” NPR, NPR, 10 July 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/07/10/535625718/new-study-holding-kids-back-doesn-t-hold-them-back.
Strauss, Valerie. “Does Holding Kids Back a Year Help Them Academically? No. but Schools Still Do It.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 30 Nov. 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/07/does-holding-kids-back-a-year-help-them-academically-no-but-schools-still-do-it/.
Ydstie, John. “Oldest Kids in Class Do Better, Even through College.” NPR, NPR, 18 Aug. 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/08/18/544483397/oldest-kids-in-class-do-better-even-through-college.
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