Pass or Fail: The Need for Alternative Strategies

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 we know that our current pass/fail system isn’t working well — for our students, teachers, families or communities — then what can we do to turn that tide?

Most of the alternatives to retention and social promotion are half measures that do not challenge the validity of the traditional concept of retention. Too many of the established alternatives merely try to mitigate impacts; retention and social promotion are retained as key elements of the educational system.

Difficult and changing ideas, including philosophies and opinions of educators and parents, have complicated the development of effective alternatives to retention and social promotion. Despite the available alternatives, retention, and social promotion remain among the most common strategies for managing academic performance in the current system.

One of the most significant problems with applying alternative strategies is that many are far from comprehensive or well thought out. Many existing alternatives do not show an awareness of the various stakeholders and their potential contributions to a student’s educational success. The fragmented nature of alternative strategies also tends makes it hard to understand the struggles of the individual student.

The so-called self-efficacy theory suggests that adolescents perceive their academic ability regarding their perception of their ability to accomplish tasks. The cognitive function of adolescents reflects the way individuals feel about themselves. Students who experience failure at school have a higher risk of self-efficacy, according to Bandura. There are various other theories, including the family systems theory, which can further explain the risks to adolescents regarding their families and their position in a system that can impact self-efficacy and academic performance.

Although counseling students can help to address problems of low self-esteem, related to poor academic performance, the best interventions do not typically involve parents because of the risk of disrupting the support system as a whole. Furthermore, supports targeting academic and even social needs tend to be limited in scope, largely because there are so many pieces to the puzzle. Most alternative supports are fragmented and limited in their availability because of the degree of specialization (for instance, the availability of resources for specialized instruction in certain areas, or for individualized counseling for students).

Identifying the problems of social promotion specifically, Labaree notes that social promotion lowers the promotional standards in schools. The National Commission on Excellence in Education suggests that this both reflects and encourages the general decline of standards in American society. Labaree also notes that within the school system, a policy of social promotion symbolizes a more general lack of commitment to student achievement.

Establishing low minimum achievement levels for promotion is also, Richard Ebel suggests, a factor that fosters lower achievement expectations. Lowering the “floor” for achievement tends to lower the “ceiling” as well. Perhaps inevitably, there are some who consider social promotion a form of academic dishonesty. It can lead to accusations that schools are rewarding students for lack of accomplishment, instilling an inflated sense of their capabilities and a poor appreciation of the importance of hard work.

Ebel suggests that more rigorous promotional standards are effective at motivating stakeholders to sustain efforts toward higher levels of achievement. Using different standards for promotion can, however, create its problems. For instance, promoting students based on age rather than demonstrated achievement creates significant differences in ability and application of students in different grades.

Disruption becomes more likely when a student perceives a risk of retention. This disruption can affect both the classroom and the student’s family. Academic problems can create severe familial tensions, and these tensions tend to be more pronounced for low-income single parent and minority families, thus becoming entwined with socioeconomic factors.

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

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