Guest Column

Is a Ban on Social Promotion Necessary?


President Clinton and an increasing number of governors and state legislators are convinced that the banishment of social promotion is the key to increasing student achievement. But there are many reasons why this draconian measure is ill-advised.

Instead, a responsible decision on retention in grade should be based on a variety of factors such as the age, health and maturity of the child; how the child reacts in formal testing situations; previous academic performance; parental attitudes; and the opportunities the child will have for remedial assistance if retained.

This last point holds more importance than it tends to receive because, without strong individualized remedial assistance, merely repeating a grade is counterproductive.

A Complicated Process
A variety of instruments, including some standardized tests, should be part of the equation when possible retention is considered. But one standardized score simply is not a reliable or adequate basis for making such a high-stakes decision.

Any education policy that would base promotion on the result of a single test is ignorant and cruel.

Children do not improve academically in a straight linear progression from year to year. They learn in spurts, just as they develop physically in spurts. A child might achieve six months’ academic growth one year and significantly more the next. Why penalize a child for one poor year when he or she might progress satisfactorily in later grades?

The most important reason for opposing social promotion legislation is that an absolute ban will not achieve the results policymakers seek. This tactic has been tried many times in the past with poor results. When, for example, New York City adopted this "solution" in the 1980s, the retained students showed no better academic improvement than other low-achieving students who had not been retained.

Although some children, especially those in the primary grades, can profit from retention, research indicates that many children do not. This conclusion is confirmed by the practical experience of veteran educators. Many children who have been retained do not show enough academic improvement to justify the decision to retain them. Children who are having academic difficulty need counseling and long-term, individualized assistance.

Retention alone does not address the root of the problem. Rather than retaining a child after he or she has supposedly failed, we should be providing all children with the help they need when they need it. It is unfair to punish children for lack of success when we as educators have failed to provide the learning tools and attention they lacked.

The Right Choice
I’m not arguing that retention is never the appropriate action. The real issue is how that decision is made. A host of complicated and interrelated dynamics needs to be recognized.

The retention of a child can be a very emotional issue for some parents. As an elementary principal I had parents use threats, tears and irrelevant arguments ("What will the neighbors think?") to avoid having their child retained. Nevertheless, I am convinced that parents, administrators, counselors and teachers, when provided with all relevant information about a child, are capable of determining together, on a case-by-case basis, if the child should repeat a grade.

The point is not whether we live or die by the sword of social promotion, but rather that national and state policymakers should not interfere with these sensitive local decisions by passing ill-conceived legislation.

Instead of seeking simplistic solutions to the complex problem of student achievement, policymakers should provide local educators with the resources they need to help all children who are struggling academically. Legislation banning social promotion will do far more harm than good.

Carl Olson is a retired elementary school principal. He can be reached at 825 Grande Heights Drive, Cary, NC 27513. E-mail: