“Promoting the End of Social Promotion”

Jay Greene and Marcus Winters:

Should the grade-level a student is in be based entirely on how old he is or at least partially on how skilled he is? This is the fundamental question underlying the debate over social promotion — the practice of moving students to the next grade regardless of whether they have acquired the minimal skills covered in the previous grade. Advocates of social promotion suggest that it is best to group students by age rather than by skill. Students who are held back a grade are separated from their age-peers and, the argument goes, this social disruption harms them academically. Opponents of social promotion favor requiring students to demonstrate minimal skills on a standardized test before they receive automatic promotion to the next grade.
Until now the bulk of the research favored social promotion. Most studies found that students who were retained tended to fare less well academically than demographically similar students who were promoted. The problem with this previous research is that it was never entirely clear whether retained students did worse because they were retained or because whatever caused them to be retained led to worse outcomes. This is especially a problem because these previous studies examined retention based on educator discretion. If teachers decide that one student should be retained while another demographically similar student should be promoted, they probably know something about those students that suggests that the promoted student has better prospects than the retained student. When researchers match students on recorded demographic factors they cannot observe or control statistically for what a teacher saw that led that teacher to promote one student while retaining the other.

The complete report is available here.

One thought on ““Promoting the End of Social Promotion””

  1. After reviewing this study (not really studying it, however), I have doubts about its usefulness — or general applicability.
    First, the study included 78,000 kids, and within part of the study, 8000 kids. Frankly, statistically speaking, any even minor difference between those retained and those promoted would be statistically significant — by the simple nature of the artifact of the math involved.
    Secondly, like most, if not all, studies in education, the authors like to translate “statistically significant” to “significant” — the latter, of course, means “an important difference”, while “statistically significant” means only, given the massive sample size, that the difference is tiny but real (with high degree of probability).
    Okay, what was the “improvement” that makes retention better?
    The kids who were (barely) retained (based on standardize objective tests) made improvements between .01 and .05 of a standard deviation over the kids who were (barely) passed to the next year. This .01 and .05 are statistically significant! — but “significant”? Measures of such kids a year after retention showed the retained kids scored .11 to .16 standard deviations above the non-retained kids — “statistically significant”, but “signficant”?
    Perhaps easier to understand, the authors translate these numbers to percentiles. If the retained kids were reading at the 23th percentile, at best, after the second year, the retained kids would be reading at the 28th percentile.
    The authors mention that even this improvement is less that the improvements that come from small class sizes. And what would cost more, retaining kids (at an additional $10,000/kid) or reducing class size?
    To me, a key feature of this Florida retention law, was to require teachers to develop a specific improvement plan for each retained child and for the child to attend a summer reading camp. So, a kid who was barely retained is given substantial intervention, while a kid who was barely passed is given nothing.
    I wonder how schools would improve if all teachers were required to created specific improvement plans for all the kids based on diagnostic tests?
    So this retention study has nothing to do with retention, and everything to do with finally “listening” to what kids needs are and delivering (albeit, at a low level of intervention).
    To me, good teaching is like good doctoring. Yes, “take two aspirin and call me in the morning” might work for a signficant group of patients, just as teachers who “cover” the material might work for a signficant group of kids.
    But everyone gets sick at one time or another, and the doctor must listen to his/her patient, run tests, and have the skills, time and resources to treat with the appropriate remedy.
    At one time or another, all kids will have difficulty learning some material, and the teacher must listen to his/her student, evaluate and uncover the misunderstanding, and have the skills, time and resources to treat with the appropriate remedy.

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