As students head back to school, they and their parents will be unaware of a debate that rages in academia and among teachers: should teachers hold back (“fail” in common parlance) underperforming students to repeat a grade or is it better to promote them to the next grade with their peers?
Although both sides of this argument have their advocates, the latter position, most commonly known as social promotion, is dominant in Canada. In fact, very few students in grades K-8 are retained in a grade for an additional year.
The other side in this debate rarely receives an adequate hearing and it is one that parents should know more about. The research evidence supporting social promotion is actually considerably weaker than their advocates generally acknowledge.
For example, a long-term research project, begun in Baltimore in 1982, (the Beginning School Study) examined the psychological and academic effects of failing one year on a large group of students in their first eight years of school. These researchers found the negative emotional effects of holding back a student were significantly less than expected; they found that children who were held back a year normally experienced long-term increases in their test scores and grades.
The results of this major study strongly suggest that many educators have been too quick to dismiss the merits of keeping struggling students in a grade for an additional year.
Also, to promote students from grade to grade without requiring the achievement of clear standards leads to an increasing number of functionally illiterate and innumerate high school graduates.
In Ontario, for example, almost one in six grade 10 students are unable to pass the provincial basic literacy test.
When students are promoted into grades for which they are not adequately prepared, teachers have to cope with a wide range of performance levels. Consequently, it is unrealistic to expect teachers to effectively educate all students, not when a significant number of them cannot function at the same level as their classmates.
Although teachers should adapt their lessons to meet the needs of all their students, this principle needs to be balanced against the need to maintain standards that must be taught at particular grade levels.
As well, “social promotion” fools no one, especially students who well know they were promoted despite their lack of achievement and skills. To promote such students does little for their self-esteem and, in fact, it probably does more harm than good. No wonder that socially promoted students have a higher dropout rate than other students.
While advocates of social promotion usually focus on students who have academic difficulties, there are also students who are academically capable but, for whatever reason, are not academically successful. These students must learn that graduating from school consists of more than simply putting in time – a poor way to prepare students for life beyond school.
Instead of implementing strict no-fail policies, provincial governments and school boards should help teachers and principals do what is best for students and maintain the integrity of the educational process. Post-secondary institutions and employers must be confident that high school students who receive diplomas possess the necessary skills and knowledge to function as productive citizens.
School boards, teachers, principals, and indeed parents must use common sense in deciding whether or not to promote students.
It is reasonable for school boards to avoid rigid no-fail policies and ensure that the responsibility for promotion or retention lies with the professionals who are most directly accountable. That noted, promotion to the next grade should be a sign of achievement, not simply a recognition that a student put in another year of life at school.
Michael Zwaagstra is a research associate at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a high school social studies teacher.