A new study has found ending social promotion leads to significant academic improvement for previously low-performing students. The study, published in December 2004 by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, looked at third-grade students in Florida who were required to pass a standardized test in order to be promoted to the fourth grade.
Researchers Dr. Jay Green, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and Marcus Winters, a research associate at the institute, analyzed data from the Florida Department of Education. They compared the gains among low-scoring third-graders in the first year of the retention policy against similarly low-scoring third-grade students from the previous year, before the retention policy had been enacted.
The study found that students who had been held back improved their reading scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) by 4.1 percentile points, and their math scores by 9.98 percentile points, compared to similar students who had not been held back.
Percentile points measure student performance relative to others and indicate what percentage of fellow students they outscored. For example, a percentile score of 25 indicates a student scored better than 25 percent of his or her peers.
Praise for Study, Policy
Commenting on the study, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said, “For too many years, we automatically passed students from one grade to the next without concern for whether they were actually learning. As a result, our most vulnerable students fell further and further behind their peers. … I applaud schools in Florida and across the nation that are working to help our children by stopping the dangerous practice of social promotion.”
Speaking to the Sun-Sentinel in Florida, Broward School Board member Robin Bartleman reported she had seen academic improvement in third-graders retained at Poinciana Park Elementary in Miami-Dade County, where she had previously worked as an assistant principal.
Bartleman expressed concern, however, about a possible negative impact of ending social promotion. “These students are going to have trouble with self-esteem,” Bartleman said.
That view is challenged by many educational experts. Dr. Karl Alexander, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of the book The Success of Failure, found in his research no evidence that retention caused students emotional harm or had any meaningful impact on their self-esteem.
The practice of social promotion also was criticized by former President Bill Clinton while in office. In his 1999 State of the Union Address, Clinton called for an end to the practice, saying “all schools must end social promotion. … We do our children no favors when we allow them to pass from grade to grade without mastering the material.”
In a guide on ending social promotion prepared for schools by the Clinton administration, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley noted, “Putting an end to social promotion goes hand-in-hand with making sure all students are working toward high standards.” Riley also noted, “Being promoted without regard to effort or achievement … tells students that little is expected of them, [and] that they have little worth.”
Key Education Reform
The Florida state legislature passed the bill eliminating social promotion in May 2002. The law was one of a number of measures adopted as Florida worked to reform a public education system that has generally ranked toward the bottom of most academic indicators.
Opponents of social promotion contend that students entering fourth grade without basic skills are not able to grasp the more difficult curriculum. They pointed out that the achievement gap between students with basic skills and those without them would grow over time as the curriculum became increasingly challenging.
The new policy requires that third grade students score at Level 2 on the reading portion of the FCAT in order to be promoted to the fourth grade. The third grade class of 2002-03 was the first to face that requirement.
Exceptions were built into the retention policy for some disabled students and limited-English speaking students, as well as for students able to demonstrate their proficiency by another test or with a portfolio of their work.
Under the new policy, approximately 60 percent of students scoring below Level 2 were retained, compared to less than 10 percent in previous years.
Others Adopting Policy
Several other states and cities–including California, Georgia, Texas, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia–also have ended social promotion in recent years.
In a December 8 interview with the New York Sun, city Department of Education spokesman Keith Kalb discussed the Manhattan Institute study and New York City’s policy ending social promotion. Kalb said, “The findings are encouraging in that the Florida students … who were retained performed better in English and math than similar students who were promoted. We are confident that our third- and fifth-grade policies … will help our children learn more and achieve more in higher grades.”
The study’s authors said they intend to follow the students involved in the study for several more years to determine the long-term results of ending social promotion.
Sean Parnell ([email protected]) is vice president of The Heartland Institute.
For more information …
More information on the Harvard study and social promotion is available online at