With the end of the spring semester rapidly approaching, teachers once again will have to confront the issue of social promotion. For years, research seemed to be on the side of moving students to the next grade whether or not they mastered the material because it showed that holding students back is harmful.
But a study released this month, "The Benefits of Florida's Test-Based Promotion System," by the Manhattan Institute's Center for State and Local Leadership found that retention is beneficial. Specifically, students in the third grade who were detained and given remediation did better in the short and long run than those who were promoted. The study examined the performance of students who just passed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test with those who just missed the mark.
By looking at these essentially identical groups, Marcus A. Winters, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, says that the study avoids "unobserved differences" such as maturity level or home environment that calls into question previous research into the matter. He explains how two students with identical test scores at the end of the school year can result in different decisions. A teacher could conclude that one student has the maturity level to be promoted, while a researcher could not draw the same conclusion because the student's maturity level does not appear in the data.
Nevertheless, it's important to remember that the benefits of retention cited by Winters are based on the rigorous remediation provided by a mandatory summer reading camp and by highly effective teachers the following school year. Rather than give this help to students in that time frame, why not do so during the present school year? Wouldn't that approach be far more beneficial? Students who are so identified could immediately get the necessary assistance in the form of after-school and Saturday tutoring, shielding them from the psychological harm done by being held back. The RAND Corporation, for example, found that at-risk students in New York City who were identified early and provided additional support did not have to repeat the school year.
All teachers could provide this support through the use of formative assessment. As W. James Popham explains in Transformative Assessment (ASCD, 2008), it is "a planned process in which teachers or students use assessment-based evidence to adjust what they're currently doing." This feedback during the school year has the potential to help students avoid repeating a grade and spare teachers the pain of making that decision. I stress the importance of early intervention in order to put an end to the extreme swings of the promotion pendulum, which have undermined taxpayer confidence in public schools.