“How did I fail? I did all of my work! You must not like me… I came to class everyday. ” These were the protests from my current ninth graders as I handled the arduous task of doing what every teacher hates the most- explaining to children their first semester grades in my class. Every conference that I had (whether they failed or not) the students seemed to be genuinely confused about their grades. Some students could not fathom that they did not have a 100%-like they did in Middle School Language Arts. While others were bewildered on how they did not earn enough points to pass.
By the end of the day, I was mentally exhausted from explaining to children that in high school you HAVE to earn credits to be promoted.
The longer I thought about these conferences, the more I was confused but for different reasons. Despite the students whines, I had done my ‘due diligence’ in making sure that students were updated about their grades. I had contacted parents once every two weeks all during the semester, I had offered after school tutorial and had differentiated my butt off. But what happened that students were still dumbfounded about how they failed the class? After taking an afternoon and reviewing (yet again) my students records (test scores, etc.) I had an epiphany. Almost half of my students were in high school due to social promotion. Many had failed numerous testing from elementary all the way through middle school while others had attended summer school for several years in a row due to being retained during the school year. The further I investigated, the angrier I got. I noticed that many of them had appealed their retention in middle school and through this ‘appeal’ process they were able to go to the ninth grade..regardless of their academic readiness.
Social promotion is apparently the gift that continues to give long after middle school.
According to Ed Week, social promotion is defined as the practice of passing students along from grade to grade with their peers even if the students have not satisfied academic requirements or met performance standards at key grades. Practiced in most middle schools in the south, the practice’s effectiveness is often questioned by high school teachers where students are expected to actually earn credits in order to graduate.
Despite me being shocked by my research, social promotion is nothing new for me and my colleagues. Every year in August we are met with the same bewildered group of ninth graders eager to start high school but completely clueless with how different the world of obtaining credits really is. Instead as a staff we try to correct the negative behavior we see from students that hinder their academic readiness such as:
- lack of organization
- immaturity with the opposite sex
- their lack of accountablity for their academics while in high school
- their complaining about the amount of work given in high school and subsequently have to ask for extra credit
- their indifference when they fail several core classes.
As a teacher, it’s my job to have conferences with them, call parents, discuss summer school options but still there’s genuine shock when they are retained for their grade level. Not because they’re surprised they didn’t do the work, but that the teacher actually held them accountable for their (lack of)work.
- gives children a fake sense of academic accomplishment.
- does not give the middle and elementary school teachers the ability to have any real ‘grit’ behind their grades.
- promotes students who are not academically ready to go to the next grade.
- lends to the senseless practice of ‘make up work’
- does not prepare students for any type of post secondary school where grades are indeed final.
The stark reality is that social promotion is a cruel joke that education reformist play on our children. Instead of helping address student’s areas of deficit, it ’masks’ it as ‘not a big deal’ and students and parents never deal with it. Some students make it all the way to ninth grade with no concept of how grades and work intertwine. Through social promotion we’ve told kids that it doesn’t matter about academic readiness but instead about socially where you belong. While their are critics that cite the effects failure has on children, they pale in comparison to the effects of not holding our children accountable.
So what are teachers to do when they encounter students who have ‘made it’ into their classrooms by the ‘grace’ of social promotion? Nothing, but attempt to work with those students through remediation, tutorial, targets RTI strategies to address their areas of need and pray. In the end, there’s another ninth grader who figuratively ‘bites the dust’ and learns that in high school you actually have to earn credits in order to graduate.