Saturday, February 28, 2009

Social Promotion: The lesser of two evils?

In my opinion as an educator, the idea of social promotion is just about the worst idea in education today. For those unfamiliar, "social promotion" is the idea that we should pass students on to further grades regardless of whether they have met that grade's academic standards. From what I understand, this idea was brought about because it was thought to help students' self-esteem by avoiding stigmatization attached with "being held back."

Is this simply another bad idea foisted onto the education system by those who believe self-esteem is more important than academic standards? In a discussion I had with one supervisor, she eluded to data which shows that "holding kids back" for failure to meet requisite standards not only had no effect on their subsequent academic improvement, but also that holding students back increases the likelihood that those students will fail to get their diplomas.

I have run across an article seconding these arguments, suggesting that "holding kids back" is ineffective and increases the likelihood of drop-out. The authors write:

Grade retention is one of the methods often proposed and used to help poor performing students catch-up to their peers. At best, most research on the effects of grade retention portrays it as a practice that provides no benefit to the students; at worst it is considered a damaging practice.

These authors relay a study which found that "third graders who were retained showed no difference in test scores to those who were promoted and sixth graders who were retained scored worse than those who were promoted." In addition, they also note studies which suggest "that retained students are more likely to drop out of high school," than those who have not been retained.

The first thing I would note is that these results seem almost bordering on circularity to be of any real import. I am not a statistics guy but from what I remember from my Ed Statistics class, this is indeed a very flawed conclusion. Saying that being held back increases one's chance of dropping out or failing to earn a diploma is like saying little more than that those who are not cutting the academic mustard are those most likely not to cut the academic mustard.

The above statistics seem quite tautologous because when looking at students who get held back, chances are that you are dealing with those who are least academically motivated or inclined. So, it is being held back that caused the likelihood to ditch high school, or is being held back and dropping out of high school both due to an underlying lack of academic motivation and/or facility? (In the same way, one can suggest that the more homework one does, the more likely one will be to get an advanced degree, but this would be inaccurate, as inclination to do homework and getting an advanced degree are both symptoms of academic motivation, which is more likely to be the primary factor).

When in discussion with my supervisor, with who's views I disagree, she reminded me of the converse of the above truism: kids who are socially promoted are more likely to get their diplomas than those retained. At the risk of sounding course, no s###! Kids who are pushed through the school system are probably more likely to get diplomas...because they are pushed through the school system! This amounts to little more than saying that those who are not grade on their abilities to cook are more likely to be able to graduate culinary school than those who are retained because they can't cook well.

Good job!

The question is not, as my supervisor thinks, whether social promotion leads to more diplomas than retention. Instead, the question is whether social promotion leads to more DESERVED diplomas than retention. We would, after all, have a 100% graduation rate if we simply handed them out without making them contingent on any standards; all kids would pass because passing would be easy. This "ends justify the means" reasoning that proponents of social promotion use!

But would such a policy be right? The diplomas would be more plentiful, but would they be deserved? I can't see that they would. They would be ill-gotten in the same way that kids who are socially promoted in order that they may be handed (rather than have earned) diplomas would be.

It seems like, at root, educators once again speak from both sides of the mouth: on one hand, we talk about grade levels, passing classes, and graduating to the next grade. On the other side, we are afraid to hold kids to standards because some of them might drop out or get their feelings hurt. I sympathize with kids who are in danger of dropping out, but unlike proponents of social promotion, I am not willing to do away with the notion of standards in order to ensure that these students stay in school under artificial pretense. (That is how we wind up with students in Algebra II that don't know how to multiply, and students who can't read being in English 10).

In my opinion, social promotion is not the lesser of two evils (the other being student retention and possible drop-outs). The lesser of two evils is pushing students through to grades that they have no business being in for the sole purpose of making us educators feel better. THAT is the evil.

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