The Irony of Social Promotion

In the current issue of the Economics of Education Review, Marcus Winters and I have an article about the use of exemptions to Florida’s test-based promotion policy.  Under Florida’s policy students need to perform above a certain level on the 3rd grade reading test to automatically be promoted to 4th grade.  If  students score below that level they can still be promoted if they are granted one of various exemptions.  Some of those exemptions are objectively measured, like scoring well on an alternative test or having certain special ed or English Language Learning classifications.  But other exemptions are more subjectively determined, like having a portfolio of work worthy of being promoted.

Marcus and I looked at who received those exemptions and whether being exempted was beneficial.  We found that African-American and Hispanic students were less likely to receive exemptions and get promoted, controlling for other factors.  That is, minority students with the same test scores and economic status were less likely to be exempted from retention if they fell below the testing threshold.  The test-based policy is not racially biased, since all students who lack the academic skills to pass the test may be retained.  The bias is introduced in who gets exempted from that test-based policy.

And the irony of it all is that failing to receive an exemption actually benefited those minority students academically.  That is, students who were denied the exemption and repeated third grade outperformed their promoted colleagues on achievement tests two years later.  The retained students had more academic skill at the end of 4th grade than their comparable promoted peers at the end of 5th grade — despite being exposed to one less grade of curriculum. 

Minority students denied the exemptions may have been the vicitms of discrimination, but they ended-up making greater academic progress as a result.  Receiving those exemptions wasn’t doing many of the other students any favors.

The St. Pete Times has an article on the study today and had a blog post recently.

2 Responses to The Irony of Social Promotion

  1. Greg Forster says:

    How do you know it’s ironic? Maybe it’s reverse discrimination. The white kids should sue – objectively, they’re the ones who were discriminated against.

    More seriously, from my quick look-over it appears that in this analysis you couldn’t, or at least you didn’t, differentiate between exemptions based on objective criteria and exemptions based on subjective criteria. I’d be interested to know whether there’s racial bias in obtaining exemptions even where there’s not supposed to be any discretion. Because, as you have been instrumental in making us aware, the law isn’t always followed when it comes to retention policy.

  2. Diane Hanfmann says:

    Retention is not the only consequence. Those who are not promoted are also schooled in the summer and placed in ana intensive reading course. As researchers, wouldn’t it be necessary to present all the information and weaknesses of the study? I read about the Hispanics being retained at a higher rate than the Blacks as well. Was this the same study?

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