Do We (still) Have A Problem With Social Promotion?

As the school year winds to an underwhelming end, I look back at the year with kids in school. Our third of 8 is graduating from High School in a week or two, 2 more next year, one in 9th, one in 7th, and one in 5th, and so I have a little perspective from which to work.

Overall, my question is this: Is there (still) a problem with "social promotion" in our schools? For those unfamiliar with the term, it is the practice of moving children into and out of grades, or classes, in school based on age only, and not performance, or a level of achievement having been met.

In the middle to late 90's, this concept was more of a newsmaker than it is now. So is it still a problem, or have we moved on to more expedient political footballs?

In 1999, President Clinton spoke about social promotion in his State of the Union address, to sustained applause, noting that fourth graders should not move on in school unless they could read independently and well, and should not enter high school without a solid foundation in math skills. He called for a decrease in Federal funding to school districts who insist on continuing the practice of social promotion.

Clinton's proposed program called for 2 things, operating in tandem: an end to social promotion, and an increase in funding to support early detection and remediation of at-risk students with learning deficiencies. He also calls for "appropriate use of tests and other indicators of academic performance in determining whether students should be promoted." The key questions are whether testing is used appropriately in such decisions and whether early identification and remediation of learning problems can take place successfully.

My experience is this, from an anecdotal perspective: I have found that, especially in junior high, an average or even below-average kid (any and all kids actually), can earn so much credit in bonus work, bonus points, extra curricular contributions, bonus questions, etc, that grades are easily skewed to the point that they don't really reflect the level of proficiency of a given student. I've had kids come home from school with a grade on a test that is above 100%. Talk about "new math!!!"

This, coupled with a social promotion mindset, can lead to kids heading into and out of high school without having an appropriate baseline minimum education.
President Clinton told a "summit"” meeting of political and business leaders in October of 1999, "that students who are held back because they fail to vault newly raised bars should be treated with tough love, "‘look dead in the eye some child who has been held back, and say, "This doesn't mean there's something wrong with you, but we'll be hurting you worse if we tell you you're learning something when you're not."

And lest you think this is what all good Democrats should say, consider:

[From 1998] Governor Bush of Texas has proposed that "3rd graders who do not pass the reading portion of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills would be required to receive help before moving to regular classrooms in the 4th grade. The same would hold true for 5th graders who failed to pass reading and math exams and 8th graders who did not pass tests in reading, math, and writing. The state would provide funding for locally developed intervention programs."

So, it's now 7 years or so since that time. Has anything changed? I don't think so. It's easy for us to wave the funding flag here. Real easy. Holding kids back is expensive. Some argue that the expense and emotional damage incurred by a hold-back does not necessarily remedy the original problem: an underperforming student.
In addition to the funding flag, there are other flags being trotted out too, most notably the race flag, culture flag, and the language flag.

All of these are issues that impact the effectiveness of teachers in our schools. And in fact, I would submit that test-based promotion is/would be harder to regulate and implement now than it would have been then, given these other flags that now play into the picture in a more prominent way.

Bottom line for me: With the atmosphere what it is, and funding what it is, and, from a local perspective, the state of our local school districts, it will be very hard to do anything besides promote students based on age-only, and we will continue to churn out high school grads who cannot read, write, or multiply. This has the effect of dumbing down our society over a long term. I come in contact with MANY people who couldn't write their way out of a rain-soaked paper bag. (One of my MAJOR pet peeves.) We continue to shrink the school year at the behest of the teachers associations, while simply allowing our kids to float through, paying good teachers poorly (pun intended), having dumbed our education system down to the lowest common denominators in the effort to "include" everybody. That's what daycares are for.

In the category of "don't get me started", why are there so many school districts here on the Wasatch Front? Granite school district purchased the MAMMOTH albatross otherwise known as the failed FHP HMO building, which has gone through several different entities. How much money would be saved for other funding issues (like per-student dollars) if the school districts around here were combined under one roof, one administration, one set of staff, etc., in that building? There is lots of administrative overhead that could be saved by combining school districts. Just my $0.02

Further geek-reading:


Reach Upward said...

The programs instituted a few years back did put a lot more emphasis and funding on reading and other basic skills in grades 1-3. Many teachers of the next several grades have complained that the emphasis stopped after grade 3.

Utah's U-PASS system was established to teach and test for capabilities in the basics, but we kind of did this backwards. We started requiring graduating students to pass the Utah Basic Skills Test this year, but this years' graduates did not have the benefit of 12 years of an educational system that properly emphasized the basics. Therefore, they ultimately decided to give the failures diplomas with some kind of notation that they didn't pass the UBSKT. I don't know what they'll do next year. My oldest starts 10th grade next year. I hope he has to pass the test to get his diploma in three years -- and I hope he has all the skills he needs by then to pass the test.

Some argue that the emphasis on the basics robs kids of a well-rounded education by de-emphasizing arts and other non-science subjects. But the fact is that we've got to do something about how lousy we're doing with regard to the basics and hard sciences.

I have generally not seen good outcomes from holding students back, but that is based on anecdotal experience. I have not seen failing students suddenly become successful. Like it or not, our schools are highly social places, and there is a huge social stigma attached to being held back that will never be overcome by some adult lecturing the student about what is best for them. That doesn't mean that it should never happen, but we have to face the reality that it won't be a wonderful experience.

On the lowest common denominator thing, there is a lot of clamor in some circles that the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act aimed at helping the lowest end are creating disincentives for achievement at the higher end -- enforcing mediocrity for all. Dumbing down is something we should avoid.

That One Guy said...

Good comments. There is so much that is broken about our education system that instituting tests is not going to fix what is wrong.

To fix this, there needs to be a hugely multi-facted approach to the situation. I am a firm believer that public education is a disservice to our kids if it's not well rounded with all the disciplines, arts, trades, technology, etc, included.

We should start by adding school days, and compensating the excellent teachers appropriately.

It's rediculous the number of weekends that are book-ended with days off - even long weekends with "extra" days off.

We're treating our schools and children like they're going to some sort of day care.

Better-enforced discipline at school will help as well. I'm a school uniform supporter for this reason as well.