Pass or Fail: Consistent Standards to Rise Above Retention and Social Promotion

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?

Consistency is the key to overcoming social promotion and retention issues in our K-12 schools, and that will take a shift in the way our school systems view pass/fail standards.

Without consistent standards, student motivation will continue to deteriorate, and there will be a further undermining of educational goals in themselves. The common assumption, when a strategy like retention is applied, is that holding back students who are underperforming is a viable way to ensure that they go on to master expected skills. The assumption has been that a student who fails to show mastery of specific skills simply needs more time to grasp curricular concepts.

Despite the fact that they are struggling already, retained students are expected to not only achieve the required knowledge and skill levels they previously failed to but also to master a higher standard of knowledge and skill if they graduate and move up to the next grade after a year.

The absurdity of this expectation is not lost on the education system, but that has not prevented the deployment of these policies since roughly 1850. Instead of working to have clear, consistent policies to support student development throughout their school career, the shifts in educational policies have determined that effective grading policies for students do not exist. The traditional grading scheme was instituted at a time when “only an advantaged few”were allowed to advance to the higher learning opportunities.

As Brookhart points out in his assessment of the application of grading in this sense, one of the larger failings of common grading practices is that they do not account for the needs of the teacher either. They do not recognize that individual teachers need to manage their classrooms and motivate their students.

“Traditional grading does not so much ignore motivation theory as much as it simply predates it,” says Brookhart, and it certainly makes little provision for struggling students, who are often labeled “uninterested” or “lazy,” when the issue may rather be that they are subjected to too much motivation in the wrong direction.

It is worth noting that many students impacted by retention and promotion policies which are regarded as having poor academic performance are not necessarily just having issues with the content that they are expected to learn. Many researchers have suggested that at least some of the problem is due to the grading and assessment system in use across the country. In other words, poor grading systems perpetuate the problem of poorly performing students.

James and Powell argued that “merely abolishing social promotion will not solve the problem.”  I believe we should be emphasizing intended progress toward individualized learning, as well as the promotion of greater parental involvement through government support of poor and disadvantaged families. What are your thoughts?


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