Texas Students Routinely Promoted Without Passing

Published January 1, 2006

According to a report released in late October by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), social promotions in the Lone Star State continue almost unabated three years after the beginning of a concentrated effort to end the practice of moving students to the next grade level when performance indicators show they may not be ready.

The report, “Grade-Level Retention in Texas Public Schools 2003-04,” showed 8,600 third-graders did not pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) in 2003, but more than half of that group, including many students who failed the test three times, advanced to fourth grade anyway.

Sandy Kress, an education advocate in Austin and former Dallas Independent School District board president, said the numbers are worrisome enough to suggest policymakers should begin a review of those promotions to see if students truly have the knowledge and skills to succeed in higher grades.

If students “failing third grade assessment are also found failing fifth grade assessments, school leaders must explore and likely reform the committee review process that may be working at odds with the purpose and intent of state law against social promotion,” Kress said.

Report Highlights Failures

According to the report, in the 2003-04 school year:

  • of the 8,621 Texas third-graders who did not pass reading, 54 percent advanced to fourth grade;
  • of the 79,252 fifth-graders who failed both reading and mathematics, 97 percent advanced to sixth grade;
  • of the 98,564 eighth-graders who failed both reading and mathematics, 96 percent advanced to ninth grade.

Those figures provoke important questions about Texas public school standards, assessments, and accountability, said Chris Patterson, director of research for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based think tank.

“Why are schools promoting such a large percentage of students who fail state assessments?” Patterson asked. “This study should remind state policymakers that it is important to continually check to ensure that education policies achieve the goals they are designed to achieve.”

Promotion as Policy

The policy to end social promotion in Texas, which began in the 2002-03 school year, mandates students in third grade and up either demonstrate mastery of grade-level skills on a state reading assessment, or repeat the year. Similar requirements were instituted for fifth-grade math in the 2004-05 school year. Both reading and math requirements will become policy for eighth graders and above in 2007-08.

The purpose of ending social promotion was to ensure students are not “pushed through the system as nonreaders,” said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, which represents 6,500 teachers.

“Unfortunately, school systems are more often concerned with how their retention numbers look instead of whether these children can read well enough to succeed,” Fallon said. “Consequently, schools have found loopholes in the law, and legislators need to plug those holes. Nothing does a child a greater disservice than promoting him when he is lacking the basic skills to succeed.”

Retention Not ‘Really’ Required

The statute requires schools to retain students failing to meet standards after three opportunities to pass the TAKS (February, April, and June), unless a grade-placement committee (GPC), consisting of the student’s parent(s), teacher, and principal, unanimously decides the student is likely to perform at grade level after accelerated instruction. The district must then provide to the student’s teacher an accelerated instruction plan geared specifically for the student, to be used in a class of no more than 10 students, to prepare them for the next testing period.

A parent concerned about testing may request, after a second failed test, that the child not be retested; it then falls to the GPC to determine whether the child will be retained or promoted.

Texas Eagle Forum President Cathie Adams said she wants “to see Texas move away from an outcome-based system where teachers are teaching to a test (TAKS) that is based on attitudes, values, and behaviors. We need to move towards a system that teaches academics–factual knowledge–and take a stand against statewide social promotion policies.

“In the current system, education outcomes are uncertain,” Adams explained. “The outcome of the current system is social promotion for students who fail to meet the standards–pulling all student achievements down to the lowest standard when they might otherwise become high achievers.”

Value of Retention Policy Questioned

Some policy experts, however, are questioning the retention policy’s long-term effectiveness, not just educators’ failure to adhere to it.

“Texas’ current retention policy has not demonstrated any evidence of improving student success. It has not materially improved our high school graduation rate, nor has retention resulted in improved academic proficiency of graduates,” Patterson said.

“Clearly, the retention policy suffers design flaws,” Patterson noted. “If retention’s purpose is to produce more academically able students, the loophole in state policy that allows large numbers of failing students to bypass retention needs to be closed. What good is retention if it doesn’t help educational outcomes?”

Connie Sadowski ([email protected]) is director of the Education Options Resource Center at the Austin CEO Foundation.

For more information …

The Texas Education Agency’s report on retention is available online at http://www.tea.state.tx.us/research/pdfs/retention_2003-04.

The Education Commission of the States compares retention policies for each state at http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/65/51/6551.htm.

The U.S. Department of Education offers a Retention Guide for Educators and State and Local Leaders, available at http://www.ed.gov/pubs/socialpromotion/intro.html.