Pass or Fail: Alternative Strategy Factors to the Pass/Fail System

In this multi-part series, I provide a dissection of the phenomenon of retention and social promotion. Also, I describe the many different methods that would improve student instruction in classrooms and eliminate the need for retention and social promotion if combined effectively.

While reading this series, periodically ask yourself this question: Why are educators, parents and the American public complicit in a practice that does demonstrable harm to children and the competitive future of the country?

If previous efforts and employing one or another of the existing alternative strategies have not been effective, we’re left with this question: what can educators do to develop alternatives to retention and social promotion that will actually work?

Several key points emerge from the existing body of research. First and foremost, research shows that alternatives to grading, retention, and social promotion must represent a multi-stage process that has been carefully planned and tested. While this might seem obvious, especially the requirement that a strategy is carefully planned, we should remember the context in which retention and social promotion occurs, a context that includes significant historical dimensions.

Indeed, one need look no further than the Common Core Standards and one of the major complaints about them: that they are woefully under-tested and embody goals and that have little to do with the real educational needs of individual students.

A second key to developing an effective alternative is the identification of those factors that are most crucial to a successful education policy. What do we need to consider when choosing among alternative strategies? What does the research tell us about the most important elements to a strategy that would replace grading, retention, and social promotion?

Most studies of the effects of grade retention and social promotion are limited in one way or another. The statistical power of many such studies is limited by a small sample size. Even the larger studies are often hampered by inconsistencies in education policy or implementation that make it difficult to interpret the results.

Logic also plays a role in showing the problems with grade retention and social promotion, as well as in determining the basic elements of alternative education strategies for failing students. One of the first points to be addressed from the perspective of logic and common sense is the basis for assigning specific grades to student assignments. We should not only consider the grading process itself but, to gain a wider perspective, we should also consider the ultimate objective of the education system, as well as how we can determine whether that objective is being achieved.

Consider the individual that America’s public education system should be producing. What should that individual be prepared for? Why are they getting an education in the first place? And, as we have suggested already, the “why” should play a big part in determining the “how.”

Whatever we decide regarding the ultimate goals of the public education system, it is clear that students must be examined to determine the knowledge and skills that they have learned in school. We do need to test their readiness for college and employment. But the other side of this coin is that the education process must be capable of transferring knowledge and skills in targeted areas.

A successful educational system must not only address student weaknesses, ensuring at least a rudimentary understanding of mathematics, science, languages, literature, writing, and reading comprehension; it must also nurture individual strengths, giving students an opportunity to develop their unique interests and gifts in preparation for a productive career.

We must also consider the non-academic costs of retention and social promotion on students and the education system as a whole. Although they are inherently difficult to gauge, we know that grade retention and social promotion have impacts that are academic, social, economic, and even emotional in nature.

The American School Counseling Association (ASCA) has offered a model for managing grade retention and social promotion that concentrates on the psychosocial aspects of student learning.

The ASCA’s model for developing academic policies and is based on standards intended to be implemented by school counselors. The ASCA’s model assumes that educators would be more effective at bringing about educational reform if they were more aware of the psychosocial factors that impact students.

Recommendations for educators have included input and supports not only from school counselors but also from teachers, administrators, and parents. This is largely because of the recognized need for as many stakeholders as possible to collaborate in support of academically struggling students.

The ASCA identified many barriers to educational reform, including several that explain precisely why collaborative, comprehensive support strategies are needed to support struggling students. Barriers include family stressors, apathy towards school and potential personal success, academic deficiencies, disabilities, poor behavior to support educators’ efforts, and limited access to resources.

Awareness of barriers to academic success can translate into an awareness of strategies for providing support. For instance, educators are in a good position to be able to resolve academic problems in collaboration with students and parents; They can provide insight into learning strategies for the individual student that may help the to help themselves achieve academic success.

Research has shown that retention causes changes in the lives of adolescents who lack coping skills to recover from the experience itself. Indeed, pressures of certain life changes and life events can be the cause of academic struggles. The intertwining of problems inside and outside the schoolroom highlights the need for a comprehensive approach to supporting students. Bullying and teasing can impact retained or socially promoted students and create additional academic struggles. The development and implementation of a comprehensive guidance curriculum by school counselors can support struggling students and minimize the recourse to retention or social promotion.

The second standard of the ASCA model includes programs that address bullying and teasing of students. Such consideration should be an element of a viable strategy for reducing the need for retention or social promotion. Another suggestion from the ASCA is that educators become advocates for students at risk of retention. Effective educators can advocate for students by making other stakeholders in a school aware of particular struggles and the potential need for more significant supports in the classroom.

Click here to read all my suggestions for alternatives to social promotion and retention.

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