Anti-Social Promotion

June 30, 2008

Georgia joined several other major school systems, including Florida, Texas, New York City, and Chicago, when its legislature mandated that student promotion to the next grade be linked to performance on standardized tests.  All failing students in certain grades must re-take the test, according to state law.  Students failing twice can be promoted anyway if the parents, principal, and teachers review the student’s other work and agree that promotion would be beneficial, but it is clear that this should be the exception, not the rule. 

But according to a report in yesterday’s Atlanta Journal Constitution, “school districts are promoting the vast majority of [failing] students anyway… In 2007, for instance, 92 percent of the nearly 9,500 eighth-graders who couldn’t pass the math CRCT were promoted.”    In Clayton County 97 percent of students who failed the re-test to get promoted or simply didn’t take the re-test were promoted to the next grade.  When asked about why these students were promoted, the District issued a statement that said, “the philosophy of prior administrators was to promote students who failed and provide them remediation.”

Oh.  I see.  The law says that students unable to pass the state’s test ought to be retained but Clayton County school officials had a different philosophy.  Their philosophy was that they don’t have to follow the law. 

Districts weren’t simply exploiting the loophole of promoting students by consent of parents, teachers, and principals.  Districts were directly violating the law by promoting students who did not even take the re-test, which is clearly mandated for all students before promotion by alternative means can be considered.  As the AJC writes, “About one in five students missed the retest after failing a high-stakes CRCT in 2006 and 2007.  Eighty percent were promoted anyway.”

Non-compliance by public school officials with legal mandates is an enormous obstacle to education reform.  Even if one thinks that this particular mandate on social promotion is mis-guided, the frequency with which school officials feel free to flout legally mandated attempts at reform undermines the potential for any reform strategy.

In an earlier study I led on NCLB’s choice provisions, I found that the requirement that chronically failing schools inform parents that they had the option to transfer to other schools was undermined by the failure of schools to inform parents of that option.  (The study was published in the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy, but an earlier free version of it can be found here.)

Problems with implementation have also been central themes in the discussions on this blog on Response to Intervention, Reading First, more Reading First, and more Reading First. Until we develop the political will to actually enforce the reforms we do adopt, we shouldn’t expect much from them.

In addition, the evidence from Florida suggests that limiting social promotion by linking testing to retention is actually a very beneficial reform.  In a study I did with Marcus Winters that was published in Education Finance and Policy, we found that retained students significantly outperformed their comparable peers over the next two years.  In another study we published in the Economics of Education Review, we found that schools were not effective at identifying which students should be exempted from this test-based promotion policy and appeared to discriminate in applying these exemptions.  That is, white students were more likely to be exempted by school officials in Florida from being retained, but those students suffered academically by being exempted.

But the more important point is that each school district, school, or teacher cannot decide whether to comply with the law or not.  These are public schools and the public, through their elected representatives, is entitled to set policies that govern how those schools will operate.

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