Social promotion refers to the practice within schools of allowing students to progress to the next grade level with their peers regardless of whether or not they have mastered the academic skills and content of the current grade level. A student may be socially promoted even if not ready for the next grade due to complex social and psychological factors that make retention in the same grade equally undesirable.
No U.S. data exists on how many children are socially promoted each year. In fact, most teachers are reluctant to admit they ever participate in the practice. But the problem of social promotions was perceived to have reached such scandalous proportions by the 1980s that the problem was included in the famous “A Nation at Risk” report, and the Clinton administration banned the practice outright. In 2001, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act added a new focus on testing and accountability. Although NCLB’s annual basic skills tests are designed to help educators learn how best to improve students’ mastery of the curriculum, they also serve as a safeguard against social promotion.
Unfortunately, while new retention policies effectively raised student test scores, it is not clear that students most in need of help have benefited. Elementary-age children believe that retention is a punishment; they feel stigmatized by being left behind by their peers. Studies indicate that the trauma of this stigma damages a child’s social and emotional development, as retained children typically demonstrate more behavior problems and lower peer acceptance. These difficulties may persist into high school, since some studies reveal a correlation between retention and high school dropout rate. Most important, when retained students relearn the same material through the same teaching methods, they do not catch up with their peers. On the contrary, they fall further behind because they face the same struggles again, while their peers move on to new material.
That said, social promotion is not a solution to this problem. Letting students move ahead when they cannot do the work frustrates them and contributes to their failure later in life, since success in any grade depends on skills learned in past grades. Social promotion sends a message to students that they do not have to work hard to achieve academic goals. This, in turn, decreases the individual student’s motivation to achieve.
Society also pays an economic price for social promotion practices. Nationwide assessments consistently show that the majority of public school students cannot meet basic standards. Many employers and colleges spend time and money on remedial instruction. The combination of low self-esteem and dropping out of high school can lead to crime and violence in young adults.
With this debate in mind, policies to end social promotion need to be accompanied by concrete action plans for helping struggling learners. Retention alone does not solve the problem. Strategies for ending social promotion include high-quality universal early childhood education, early identification of students at risk for learning difficulties, and a focus on high-quality curriculum and instruction as well as interventions to help low-performing schools.
- Frey, Nancy. 2005. “Retention, Social Promotion, and Academic Redshirting: What Do We Know and Need to Know?” Remedial and Special Education 26:332—i6.
- S. Department of Education. 1999. “Taking Responsibility for Ending Social Promotion: A Guide for Educators and State and Local Leaders.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED430319.pdf).
- “What If We Ended Social Promotion?” 1999. Education Week, April 7, pp. 64-66.
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