Social promotion is the act of promoting students from one grade to the next even though they have not demonstrated sufficient knowledge of grade level standards. The impetus behind social promotion is that it is considered harmful to keep a child back, called retention, from a social standpoint. In social promotion, the key is allowing the child to continue to develop relationships with his/her current peer group. Retention is seen as negative and corresponds with a higher dropout rate.
Many schools have ended social promotion by conducting standardized testing at certain grade levels in order to ascertain that the student can academically progress to the next grade level. In particular, high school exit examinations, though frequently contested, are supposed to be a way to be certain that a student has mastered basic skills throughout K-12 education and can demonstrate such skills in test form.
However, a student who has been the subject of social promotion in the past may not be equipped to take exit examinations. Therein lies at least part of the problem. If in a child’s school career, he or she has not mastered the basics, he or she may attend school for 13 years without being able to earn a high school diploma. Continued inability to progress to the next level of education tends to snowball, creating both academic and social problems.
Since some schools now advocate retention, strategies for ending social promotion must be in place. One of the problems with retention is that a student often takes the same class from the same teacher the next year. This means teaching methods and material remain the same. If the student is not the kind of learner that responds to the teacher’s particular methods, then repeating a year in school may not promote greater mastery of skills.
Schools that attempt to end social promotion do so best by testing kids early and providing interventions or assistance for students who repeatedly appear to demonstrate difficulty with grade level material. Reducing class size, having well-funded special education programs and identifying problem areas for specific children have can also minimize social promotion.
When students are retained, they need to have support systems in place that will help them successfully master grade level material. Educational testing, modification of curricula, and switching the student to a different teacher can all be helpful tools. Without support available to the retained child, or one who has experienced social promotion, success in later grades is minimal.
Retention continues to have its negatives, as does social promotion. Students who are retained are more likely to continue to exhibit poor performance in school, and have a much higher dropout rate. Retention also costs more money, since it will take longer for a state to educate a student.
Despite intervention, some children may not perform well on exit tests, and they may not receive necessary modifications which would allow them to do so. Many exit examinations are being challenged as discriminatory, and many feel that significant improvement needs to be made on these tests to accommodate students who can demonstrate mastery of basic skills in one form, but perhaps not in another.