Prevalence of Social Promotion
Social promotion is the practice of promoting students to the next grade even though they have not acquired minimum competencies expected of that grade. The number of students socially promoted each year is unknown because few school districts report these data and other districts have only limited data (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). This practice appears to be fairly widespread, however, according to a 1997 survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Results from the AFT (1997) survey showed that 85 large urban school districts do not have a policy endorsing social promotion. Even though social promotion is not officially endorsed in these districts, more than half the teachers surveyed indicated that they had promoted unprepared students the previous year. Reasons given for these social promotions were fear that high failure rates would reflect poorly on the school and school personnel, pressure exerted by principals and parents to promote unready students, knowledge that retention is ineffective, and the absence or insufficiency of effective educational alternatives to social promotion.
Negative Effects of Social Promotion
Educational leaders, governmental officials, and policymakers are clearly concerned about the prevalence of social promotion. In February 1998, President Clinton recommended that the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) (1999) put an end to social promotion. In the past 15 years, 15 states have established specific standards for grade promotion, and others are planning such policies (Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory [NWREL], 1999).
Social promotion is problematic for students, teachers, and parents. Social promotion gives some students the false sense that they have mastered skills necessary for later success. It sends a message to other students that their effort and achievement do not count. Having socially promoted students in the classroom is challenging, because teachers must plan for and teach to a group of children with widely divergent skills and knowledge. Furthermore, it creates frustration among teachers who feel powerless to expect hard work from all students. Social promotion sends parents the false message that their children are adequately prepared to be successful in school and in the labor force (AFT, 1997; National Association of State Boards of Education [NASBE], 1999).
Colleges, universities, and businesses also encounter negative side effects from the practice of social promotion. Data from the NCES showed in 1995 that about one in three freshmen had to take a remedial class in math, science, or writing (NCES, 1996). In addition, college professors are finding that they must lower their standards to assist students who are not prepared for college work. The business community is now investing substantial funds to reeducate students who lack skills needed to be successful in the labor force (AFT, 1997; NASBE, 1999; Thompson, 1999).
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