Social Promotion

As printed in Investor’s Business Daily, 03/08/2000

On Dec. 18 President Clinton’s education secretary, Richard Riley, visited the home of the anti-social-promotion movement, Chicago’s James Ward Elementary. “I’m not into social promotion and I am not into retention,” Riley said during his visit. The administration’s flip-flop on social promotion comes after the Los Angeles Unified School District surrendered its ban on social promotion.

In the wake of projections showing more than 40% of Los Angeles students failing, the school board reasoned that social promotion – the practice of graduating students despite failing grades – is necessary so as not to overwhelm the city’s summer schools and tutoring programs. According to school board member David Tokovsky, upholding high standards in Los Angeles just didn’t work: “The implementation (of new standards) so far is pretty much a disaster. There was heavy-duty tension on all of this and now the board is going to have a really tough debate on how to cut back and do at least some of it right.”

The standards movement has for the most part made great inroads into America’s schools. In 1996, 14 states maintained standards in the four core subjects (English, math, science and history). By 1998, 39 did. And by 2000, 47 states will have assessments in reading and math for elementary, middle and high school. In 27 states, students must pass a standardized test to graduate high school.

Ten years ago, it was virtually impossible to compare one school system with another. In almost every state, student achievement is measured on student-to-student, school-to-school and district-to-district levels. As the Los Angeles school problem illustrates, the question now is: Will standards survive when students fall woefully short of them? Let’s hope so. A recent poll in education magazine Phi Delta Kappan found 72% of Americans favor “stricter standards for social promotion in school, even if it meant that significantly more students would be held back.”

Most public officials now endorse higher standards too, as they represent a simple and speedy answer to the education mess. Nevertheless, resistance to standards remains wherever students are bombing out. Even in upper-middle-class enclaves in Chicago and Cambridge, Mass., students have protested against state-mandated exams. Parents are piling on too, with New York’s Advocates for Children, Chicago’s Parents United for Responsible Education and Virginia’s Parents Across Virginia. A group of Hispanic Texan parents has even sued Texas for failing out Hispanic students. Educrats are no help either. “Raising scores is completely different from helping students to learn,” said Alfie Kohn, author of “The Schools Our Children Deserve.” Kohn argues that testing encourages “teaching to the test,” which stifles teachers’ creativity and narrows the curriculum.

Curiously, parents object to standards not in principle but in practice. Mickey Vanderwerker, head of Parents Across Virginia, told the Washington Post: “Accountability is important, but our kids are more important than test scores.” Translation: standards are fine until my child can’t meet them.

Parental anger is understandable in districts with Catch-22 social promotion, where students fail because schools do not teach them properly and then find themselves buried deeper in the very system that contributed to their failure. The response to this anger should not be social promotion, but better schools.

Jake Phillips is an education adviser to William J. Bennett at Empower America in Washington, D.C.