End Social Promotion, Introduce Independent Testing

Published April 1, 2012

Public schools’ tradition of social promotion—promoting children to the next grade despite their lack of academic knowledge and skills—degrades U.S. school quality. Whether judged by the state departments’ of education proficiency standards or by the well-regarded National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), large numbers of public school children in the United States cannot do grade level work. By any of these measures, an unacceptable number of children are behind. NAEP reveals, for example, nearly two-thirds of 8th grade children test below the proficiency level, meaning most of them have been socially promoted.

The requirements for promotion in the typical public school classroom are significantly more lax than those of state assessment systems. When schools have such low expectations for their students, it is not surprising that schools pass forward large numbers of children who are later found to be below grade level.

Allowing teachers and principals to set the criteria for passing is a tradition of American K-12 education, both public and private. Parents, employers, and policymakers do not often see the conflict of interest in having the same people provide instruction and test its effects.

We don’t accept that tradition. We believe that a child should pass to the next grade or next course only if that student can do the next grade’s work. Students below proficiency should not pass to the next grade level.

Causes of Rampant Social Promotion
Why are there so many socially promoted children? First, grade-level standards are low and the usual tests do not meet NAEP, international, and similar standards. The content schools teach and test is incomplete or narrow relative to such standards. This testing employs low cut scores that are inconsistent with a reasonable level of mastery in the subject.

In addition, with growing recognition of poor K-12 standards and demands for better achievement, serious problems of cheating by educators have risen. Educators have given students a “heads-up” about what questions they will find on “high-stakes” tests. They have deliberately overlooked student cheating on tests, and have even been found to alter test results.

Most of these abuses stem from the self-interest of students, teachers, school administrators, and other government officials who benefit from a “look good” system. We contend that having the testing function managed by the same people charged with providing instruction leads to a fundamental conflict of interest, which encourages the problems cited.

Solving the Conflict of Interest
Our solution to this set of problems foresees establishing a separate agency within each state that would set academic content standards, develop relevant assessments, manage and proctor test administration, and control who passes and graduates and what transcripts report. These reforms would be limited to core curricular areas and would not affect elective subjects.

We also propose that, where practical, the content standards of each state’s public education system would be minimally aligned with the NAEP, which would generally surpass the state’s current proficiency standards. We avoid the controversial and underdeveloped Common Core standards, which appear to be weaker than the NAEP’s.

We are optimistic that such independent testing can be established without too many impediments. We cite the example of Advanced Placement courses, given at the high school level, where an independent testing service (the College Board) administers the tests.

Disrupting the Mediocre Status Quo
Suppose this were to be done. What would happen? We anticipate that schools would initially find themselves with large majorities of children unable to pass the tests associated with their studies. Given that the new system would prevent social promotion, many children would face retention. The status quo would be disrupted. 

Schools would then need to focus a significant fraction of their resources on remedial instruction. In fact, we believe that the true, yet unspoken, reason for social promotion has been the high costs of remediation, not the feel-good student social relations rationale usually given. If schools had to accomplish this through traditional instruction, they might not be able to afford the additional instructional load.

Fortunately, we now have inexpensive alternatives for remediation. Many of them make use of computers and online instruction that students can access both within the school and at home. The outcome we anticipate is a K-12 environment where testing and certification of student skills will be honest and rigorous. Implementing these changes will cause disruption in the schools that, in turn, will motivate changes in instructional practices that will lead to improved student knowledge and skill levels.

In 2009 the US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the gross exaggerations of most states’ K-12 assessment systems “lying.” The truthful systems proposed here will help parents, children, and other stakeholders better know students’ true shortcomings and strengths. Based on that knowledge, schools can take the needed corrective actions.

The expected results: Student proficiencies in the 90 percent range on the NAEP scale.

David Anderson ([email protected]) is CEO of Asora Education Enterprises and a retired research physicist from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  Herbert J. Walberg ([email protected]) is chairman of the board of The Heartland Institute and a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Stanford University Hoover Institution. His latest book is Tests, Testing, and Genuine School Reform.


Image by Shannan Muskopf.