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Social promotion is the practice of promoting a student (usually a general education student, rather than a special education student) to the next grade only at the end of the current school year, regardless of when or whether they learned the necessary material, in order to keep them with their peers by age, that being the intended social grouping. It is sometimes referred to as promotion based on seat time, or the amount of time the child spent sitting in school. This is based on the requirements on how to enroll for Kindergarten so a student can graduate from the high school level at either 17 or 18 years old.
Advocates of social promotion argue that promotion is done in order not to harm the students' or their classmates' self-esteem, to encourage socialization by age (together with their age cohort), to facilitate student involvement in sports teams, or to promote a student who is weak in one subject on the basis of strength in the other areas.
In Canada and the United States, social promotion is normally limited to Kindergarten through the end of eighth grade, because comprehensive high schools (grades nine through twelve) are more flexible about determining which level of students take which classes due to the graduation requirements, which makes the concept of social promotion much less meaningful.
The exception to the general rule of annual promotion in the social promotion system, namely to "hold back" a student with poor academic achievement, is called grade retention. Other options include after-school tutoring or summer school.
The opposite of social promotion would be to promote students when they learned the necessary material. This might be called "merit promotion", similar to the concept of a "merit civil service". The scope of the promotion might then be either to the next grade or to the next course in the same field. In a curriculum based on grades, this is usually called "mid-term promotion". In a curriculum based on courses rather than grades, the promotion is open-ended and is better understood as satisfying a prerequisite for the next course.
Arguments in favor
Supporters of social promotion policies do not defend social promotion so much as say that retention is even worse. They argue that retention is not a cost-effective response to poor performance when compared to cheaper or more effective interventions, such as additional tutoring and summer school. They point to a wide range of research findings that show no advantage to, or even harm from, retention, and the tendency for gains from retention to wash out.
Harm from retention cited by these critics include:
- Increased drop-out rates of retained students over time
- No evidence of long-term academic benefit for retained students
- Increased rates of mental disorders and dangerous behaviors such as drinking, drug-use, crime, teenage pregnancy, depression, and suicide among retained students as compared with similarly performing promoted students.
- Feeling left out with kids from different age groups, which means that being too old may lead to bullying, having fewer friends, and being ridiculed.
Critics of retention also note that retention has hard financial costs for school systems: requiring a student to repeat a grade is essentially to add one student for a year to the school system, assuming that the student does not drop out. Some parents worry that older retained students will victimize younger students.
Opponents of social promotion argue that it cheats children of education. When socially promoted children reach higher levels of education, they may be unprepared, may fail courses, and may not make normal progress towards graduation. Or they may not have needed the "preparation" being forced on them, may independently learn material for which the public school only offers classes years after, if ever, and, because they were not allowed to progress towards graduation at their pace, may waste valuable years in elementary school which they could have better spent in advanced studies at a university or college.
Opponents of social promotion argue that it has the following negative impacts:
- Students who have to wait for the end of the school year to move on to more advanced studies are denied present success.
- Students promoted to a class for which they are known to be unable to do the work are positioned for further failure.
- Students can have so many easy successes during subsequent years that either their study skills deteriorate or they become so frustrated with banal lessons that they drop out.
- Students can have many failures during the subsequent years, which is frustrating for them and may increase the risk of dropping out.
- Their frustration at sitting through "baby classes" can lead to classroom disruptions or the humiliation of others.
- Their frustration can lead to classroom disruptions, which can diminish the achievement of others.
- It sends the message to all students that they can get by without working hard.
- It forces the next teacher to deal with already-prepared and under-prepared students while trying to teach the prepared
- It gives parents and students a false sense of their children's progress.
- It creates social fiefdoms of same-age peers, their consequent peer pressure causing bullying and drug abuse.
Some hold that most students at the elementary school level don't take their education seriously and therefore retention is most likely not to be effective. Since most middle school students value their education more, retention should be used if they are judged not to have adequate skills before entering high school.
It can also be argued that social promotion, by keeping most students at the elementary school level from advancing at their own pace, is the reason they don't take their education seriously. Eliminating the social promotion system would then make the incentives of merit promotion more effective at the beginning of each student's academic career.
For boys and minorities in the US, retention is more common than for girls and white students. In the US, by the time students reach high school, the retention rate for boys is about ten percentage points higher than for girls. In the early grades, retention rates are similar among white Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans. By high school, the rate is about 15 percentage points higher for African Americans and Hispanics than for whites.[full citation needed]
In 1999, educational researcher Robert Hauser said of the New York City school district: "In its plan to end social promotion the administration appears to have [included] ... an enforcement provision—flunking kids by the carload lot—about which the great mass of evidence is strongly negative. And this policy will hurt poor and minority children most of all."[full citation needed]
In a study of 99,000 Florida students, Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters  found that "retained students slightly outperformed socially promoted students in reading in the first year after retention, and these gains increased substantially in the second year. Results were robust across two distinct IV comparisons: an across-year approach comparing students who were essentially separated by the year in which they happened to have been born, and a regression discontinuity design." ["Revisiting Grade Retention: An evaluation of Florida's test-based Promotion Policy in Education and Finance Policy, MIT Press, 2006]
With the proliferation of graded schools in the middle of the 19th century, retention became a common practice, as were mid-term promotions. In fact, a century ago, approximately half of all American students were retained at least once before the age of 13.
Social promotion began to spread in the 1930s along with concerns about the psychosocial effects of retention. This trend reversed in the 1980s, as concern about slipping academic standards rose.
The practice of grade retention in the U.S. has been climbing steadily since the 1980s, although local educational agencies may or may not follow this trend. For example, in 1982, New York City schools stopped social promotions. Within a few years, the problems caused by the change in policy led the city to start social promotion again. In 1999, the city once again eliminated social promotion; it reinstated it after the number of repeaters had mounted to 100,000 by 2004, driving up costs and leading to cutbacks in numerous programs, including those for helping underachievers.
One alternative to promoting within the social promotion system is a policy of grade retention, where students repeat a grade when they are judged to be a low performer. The aim of retention is to help the student learn and sharpen skills such as organization, management, study skills, literacy and academic which are very important before entering the next grade, college and the labor force.
In the US simple social promotion was not held to be an adequate alternative to grade retention. Current theories among academic scholars prefer to address underperformance problems with remedial help. Students with singular needs or disabilities require special teaching approaches, equipment, or care within or outside a regular classroom. Since students with intellectual disabilities are handled separately, schools may treat two students with identical achievements differently, if one of the students is low-performing, but typically developing, and the other student is low-performing due to a disability.
An alternative to the social promotion system is merit promotion, either by mid-term promotion or by using a course-based curriculum with a directed acyclic graph of prerequisites similar to college curricula. This alternative is unique in allowing each student to advance at their own pace. It would also save school districts money by ending the practice of warehousing "talented and gifted students" and allowing those students to graduate early.
- Rose, Janet S.; et al. "A Fresh Look at the Retention-Promotion Controversy." Journal of School Psychology, v21 n3 p201-11 Fall 1983. 
- Leckrone, M. J. & B. G. Griffith. (2006) “Retention realities and educational standards.” In Children & Schools 28(1) p53-58 See article at http://www.redorbit.com/news/education/357610/retention_realities_and_educational_standards/
- "Schools Repeat Social Promotion Problems", Sheryl McCarthy, Newsday, March 28, 2002.
- "What If We Ended Social Promotion?", Education Week, April 7, 1999, pp 64–66.
- Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, 2006
- Retention and Social Promotion: Research and Implications for Policy. ERIC Digest Number 161, December 2000.
- Beyond Social Promotion and Retention—Five Strategies to Help Students Succeed, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 2001
- Position Statement on Student Grade Retention and Social Promotion, National Association of School Psychologists, April 12, 2003
- Wrightslaw articles on retention and social promotion