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Education Reporter

Ending 'Social Promotion': The Jury Is Still Out
Mayor Bloomberg
Mayor Bloomberg
The pros and cons of "social promotion" have been hotly debated in the New York City, Chicago and Houston school districts in recent months, as conflicting studies have emerged on the effectiveness of rules banning automatic promotion to the next grade in school.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took flak in April for sticking with his determination that 3rd graders may not proceed to 4th grade without passing a test. The mayor fired three members of a special city panel for educational policy who opposed the plan, replacing them with more supportive appointees.

Critics of social promotion cite dozens of studies over the last two decades concluding that policies forcing students to repeat a grade are costly and counterproductive, resulting in no gains in student achievement and increases in dropout rates. New York City had such a policy in the 1980s which was quietly abandoned after a few years. (New York Times, 3-17-04)

More recently, two studies released April 6 concluded that Chicago's nine-year effort to end social promotion, which served as a model for Mayor Bloomberg's policy, has been enormously expensive while yielding few benefits. Anticipating those conclusions, the Chicago Board of Education voted in March to ease its promotion rules by eliminating math scores as a factor and limiting the number of years that a student would be forced to repeat. New York's plan relies on both reading and math scores and Mayor Bloomberg has vowed to retain the math requirement. (New York Times, 4-7-04)

Chicago schools held back about 10,800 elementary-school pupils during the last school year. New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said New York plans to implement programs to help pupils even before 3rd grade, which will make the plan more likely to succeed than Chicago's. (Associated Press, 4-7-04)
Gov. Jeb Bush
Gov. Jeb Bush

On the other hand, a year after Governor Jeb Bush ended social promotion in Florida, more Florida 3rd graders are reading at or above grade level than ever before. Most of the 3rd graders who were held back showed significant improvement. (Wall Street Journal, 4-23-04) Third grade is considered important because pupils who are not reading by then probably never will.

In addition, requiring underperforming students to attend summer school and possibly repeat a grade yields lasting improvements, especially for younger students, according to a recent study in the Review of Economics and Statistics. (See Education Reporter, May 2004.)

In Houston, after years of strengthening standards for promotion of 9th graders, the city school district reversed course in early April by restoring a former policy of promoting students based on the number of credits they have accumulated, even though they fail core subjects. The superintendent argued that holding children back in 9th grade served only to raise dropout rates. "It doesn't make sense to keep a child back until he is 17 or 18 years old because he passed all his subjects except one," Kaye Stripling said. Students must still pass core subjects before graduation. (New York Times, 4-9-04)

More than 4 in 10 of Houston's 9th graders are over age. In New York, 5,569 students are 17 or older — 5% of all 9th graders. The typical entering freshman is 14. (nypost.com, 3-19-04) Sitting 17-year-olds next to 14-year-olds probably exacerbates disciplinary problems.

With such conflicting information, it is hard to say whether ending social promotion is a good idea or not. The answer may depend on additional factors, such as whether the school district provides extra help to the underperforming students and the age at which the student may be forced to repeat a grade.

Underperformance is not the only source of overage students. Parents seeking an academic or athletic edge for their children often postpone entry into kindergarten so that their children are older than their peers. The percentage of first graders who were 7 or older was 22% in October 2002, up from 13% in 1970, according to the Census Bureau. During the same period, the number of 1st graders 5 or younger declined by 4.5 percentage points. Boys and whites are more likely to be held back. This trend creates problems of its own, including boredom, misbehavior and the challenges of teaching a more disparate group. (New York Times, 4-25-04)

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