Social promotion is the practice of promoting students to the next grade level even when they have not learned the material they were taught or achieved expected learning standards. Social promotion is often contrasted with retention, the practice of holding students back and making them repeat a grade when they fail to meet academic expectations, or strategies such as proficiency-based learning, which may require students to demonstrate they have achieved academic expectations before they are promoted to the next grade level.
Generally speaking, the practice is called “social” promotion because non-academic factors and considerations, including societal pressures and expectations, influence promotion decisions. For example, educators and parents may not want to separate a young student from his or her friends or peer group, a school or community may not want a top athlete to lose his or her eligibility to play sports, or schools may not want to experience the consequences and public embarrassment that may result if significant numbers of students are held back. Considerations about the “socialization” of students—how they will learn to interact productively with peers and navigate social situations and expectations—also influence promotion decisions, particularly during the elementary grades. For example, educators may not want to damage a student’s self-esteem or put him or her at greater risk of suffering from the social, emotional, behavioral, and psychological problems often associated with grade retention. In these cases, promoting students, even though they did not meet academic expectations, is perceived to be in the best interests of the student. In a word, social promotion may result from a wide variety of educational, cultural, and socioeconomic causes—far too many to extensively catalogue here.
It should be noted that “social promotion” is largely used as a pejorative term, which complicates any attempt to define the concept since it carries negative connotations—the implication is that students are being promoted even though they are not academically ready and haven’t “earned” the promotion. The issue, however, is far more complicated in practice. While most debates about the topic are often framed as an either/or option between social promotion and grade retention, many observers have suggested that this dichotomy is both misleading and unhelpful, given that grade promotion may be the best option for students who have failed to meet academic expectations (because holding students back can have harmful effects), and grade retention is not the only solution to inadequate academic preparation (because schools can use a wide variety of academic support strategies to accelerate learning and help students catch up).
The central issue in social promotion is not the act of promotion, per se, but the problems associated with students progressing through the educational system when they haven’t learned what they were supposed to learn. The distinction here is subtle but significant. For example, are learning gaps growing over time and becoming more severe and consequential with each passing grade? Or are learning gaps being addressed and reduced over time, even though students have not met all academic expectations before being promoted from one grade to the next? In the first case, social promotion can have a variety of negative consequences for students and schools, while in the second case promotion is relatively harmless because the real problem—students not learning—is being addressed over time. When investigating or reporting on social promotion, it is important to scrutinize all the factors associated with practice, including the benefits or consequences it may have for students in specific situations.
While there is no way to determine precisely how prevalent social promotion is in public schools, the practice appears to be both common and widespread, particularly among students of color, students from lower-income households, students who are not proficient in English, and students with disabilities—i.e., groups more likely to experience cultural, socioeconomic, and educational inequality. One national survey, for example, found that a majority of participating public-school teachers reported that they promoted academically underprepared students in the preceding year. In addition, scores on standardized tests indicate that learning gaps are both significant and persistent across grade levels throughout the United States.
Given that the causes and forms of social promotion are both many and complex, states, districts, and schools may use a wide variety of strategies to eliminate or reduce social promotion. For example, proficiency-based learning, and related strategies such as demonstrations of learning, may require students to demonstrate achievement of expected learning standards before they are promoted to the next grade level. High-stakes tests—which may trigger penalties for underperforming schools, teachers, and students—are another strategy, although an extremely controversial one, used by states and policy makers. For example, students who perform poorly on some standardized tests may not be promoted to the next grade level until they achieve a minimum score on a test.
Educators may also use any number of academic support and acceleration strategies to help students meet expected learning standards or catch up with their peers academically, which would therefore render social promotion unnecessary. For example, “early warning systems” are used by educators to proactively identify students who may be at greater risk of dropping out or struggling academically, socially, and emotionally in school. Most early warning systems consist of educators collecting and analyzing student data—such as test scores, course grades, failure rates, absences, and behavioral incidences—before students begin a grade, and then using that information to provide the most appropriate academic programming, support, and services to help the students succeed. Schools are also increasingly using a variety of strategies known as “expanded learning time” to increase the amount of time students are learning in school, outside of school, and during vacation breaks, which can help who fallen behind academically catch up with their peers.
Other methods used to reduce learning gaps focus on the underlying causes of student underperformance, including a lack of sufficient interest, motivation, ambition, or aspirations. In these cases, educators may employ strategies that attempt to engage student interests and ambitions or provide them with more “personalized” instruction, lessons, and support. Strategies such as differentiation, learning pathways, and personalized learning would be three representative examples.
Social promotion is a complex problem with complex causes. While low-performing schools and poor-quality teaching certainly contribute to inadequate academic preparation, larger cultural and socioeconomic forces—from racism to income inequality to disparity in educational attainment—significantly contribute to the achievement gaps and opportunity gaps that often play a part in social promotion. For these reasons, debates about social promotion not only tend to be multifaceted and nuanced, and the practice has far-reaching implications for schools and society—and no easy solutions.
Critics of social promotion tend to argue that promoting academically unprepared students not only does an injustice to the students, but it can exacerbate the problems associated with the practice. For example, students are likely to fall further and further behind academically, which can increase the chances that they will not catch up with their peers and drop out of school before graduating. In addition, teachers in higher grades may become increasingly burdened with underprepared students who will not only require more time, attention and resources, but who will also be placed into courses alongside students who are ready for more challenging lessons and instruction. In these cases, the teacher’s job may become significantly more difficult, and the prepared students may not receive the attention and instruction they need and deserve. Or conversely, the unprepared students will require more of a teacher’s time and attention, which can negatively affect instructional quality for prepared students.
Critics of the practice may also argue that social promotion sends a variety of messages to students—for example, meeting expectations is optional, low-quality work is acceptable, or failure will still be rewarded—that could have negative long-term consequences for both the students and society. When social promotion becomes institutionalized or widespread, it can also mislead parents, policy makers, and the public into believing that students are making adequate progress in school and succeeding academically, when in fact their academic progress may be masking deeper, underlying problems in the system.
Critics may also argue that social promotion keeps students in the same type of educational settings, courses, and programs that are simply not working for them. In this case, if learning needs were being accurately diagnosed, the rationale goes, students could be placed into alternative courses and programs where they would be more likely to receive the kind of instruction and support they need to succeed in school (rather than being forced to retake the same courses that did not work the first time around, which may happen in the case of grade retention). Critics of social promotion may also cite research indicating that holding all students to high academic expectations increases their academic achievement and preparation, no matter where they started from, or that strong teaching and academic support can accelerate learning progress by months or years, thereby avoiding the need to socially promote students.
Those who support social promotion, or believe that it may be beneficial to students in certain cases, may argue that holding students back and making them repeat grades can have a variety of negative consequences: it will separate students from their natural peer group; it may increase the chances that they will struggle academically or drop out of school; it may increase the likelihood that they will suffer from low self-esteem, ridicule, and bullying; or it can increase the risk of social, emotional, behavioral, and psychological problems. In these cases, advocates of social promotion may cite research indicating that grade retention can have a variety of negative effects on students, and that in many cases grade retention does not work—students who are held back often never catch up with their peers, and they are at a greater risk of dropping out during adolescence.
In addition, the costs associated with grade retention can be significant, since holding students back effectively adds a year to the total cost of teaching those students (assuming the students remain in school). In this case, social promotion may result from financial pressures and logistical concerns, such as the increased costs and operational complexities associated with holding students back or providing them with the additional teaching and services they need to meet academic expectations.