Pass or Fail: The Indirect Cost of Social Promotion and Retention May Surprise You 

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?

Students who experience social promotion or retention aren’t the only individuals impacted. Put yourself in the shoes of the students who actually passed and the teachers. If you were one of these people, how would you view the student being socially promoted or retained? How is the education system as a whole altered by social promotion and retention?

Passing Students

Students directly affected by retention and social promotion are not the only ones impacted in America’s public schools. Passing students also pay a price for the implementation of social promotion and retention policies. The potential for retention or social promotion is certainly a cause of anxiety. Beyond this cost, however, there are several clearly identified and well-documented costs for “passing” students that relate to the quality of teaching provided when there is a need to support retained or socially promoted students.

Strained relationships between retained students and their non-retained peers are common. Passing and retained students experience significant struggles when trying to socialize together. Although this is not entirely conclusive or indicative of the underlying causes for social withdrawal from retained students, we can infer that there is a risk associated with having a retained student in a classroom. The situation can confuse social experiences for non-retained students and go largely unaddressed by school support systems including counselors, teachers, and administrators.


Another obvious cost of retention is to educators. Some teachers feel the concentration on standardized testing of students can serve as a means of “testing” teachers. This places pressure on teachers to instruct in a particular way, to teach to tests, and the like.

The effect standardized testing and graded approaches have on teachers is significant. This method doesn’t target state education agency or middle-level managers in the state bureaucracy, rather standardized testing affects only the educators. Education reform that brought about the pass-or-fail focus included systems of “testing teachers” and evaluating classroom performance. However, assessment was only possible by also prescribing the curriculum and emphasizing the testing of students.

The cost of all this is the quality of education overall and the scope that teachers have to manifest the elements of that quality. When they are impacted by retention and social promotion, teachers are essentially forced to undermine their skills, trivializing and reducing the value of the curriculum content and encouraging the distancing of children from the very purpose of schooling

The Education System

Regardless of the point at which retention occurs, there are direct financial costs associated with retaining a student in the same grade. The average cost of a typical developing and progressing student was approximately $10,700 in 2009–2010. The direct cost to retain approximately 2.3 percent is more than $12 billion per year for the number of students retained. Note that this estimate excludes the costs of any remedial services provided to the students repeating a grade, such as any learning support or specialized services, as well as earnings foregone by retained students due to their delayed entry into the labor market.

Social promotion costs are, of course, much more difficult to track. Having students of varying abilities within a single classroom undermines the ability of teachers to address the needs of all students equally unless they have other specific supports in the classroom. Both retention and social promotion policies cost our education system in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. The quality of education received by children in the United States will remain low so long as the policies of retention and social promotion remain consistent for states and school districts.

A retained child is expected to only make small advances in their educational progress. They are not likely to be that much better off academically, and may fall behind in their general education and overall academic development. Many of these issues can be traced to a loss of confidence in the entire education system as a whole.

Socially promoted students face similar problems, although from a different perspective: they already struggle academically, their schools promote them nevertheless. They not only have to apply skills and knowledge they may not have mastered from the previous year; they’re also expected to follow through and pick up a series of new skills and new knowledge sets at a more advanced level.

Social promotion and retention practices undermine the experiences of all students, teachers and negatively impact the education system overall. With this in mind, how can anyone continue to support these policies?


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