Social Promotions: As High as 40% in Some School Districts?

Virginia school systems keep track of many numbers: enrollment, demographics, graduation rates, student-to-teacher ratios, SOL scores, all manner of fiscal expenditures… The list is endless. Just check out the Virginia Department of Education website’s “Statistics and Reports” page. But you can’t find any numbers on the rate of social promotions. Needless to say, the practice of promoting children from one grade to the next even when they have failed to master the subject matter is not one that educators want to highlight.

But John Butcher, the devious mastermind of Cranky’s Blog, has devised a way to guesstimate the prevalence of social promotions in Virginia schools. VDOE reports the percentage of students who do not repeat a school year, from which it is possible calculate, by means of simple arithmetic, the percentage of students who were held back. The hold-back ranges from 0.2% of the student body in Clarke County to 5.9% in Norfolk.

How do we know that more students shouldn’t be held back? Well, John compares the hold-back rate to the failure rate in Standards of Learning tests. John’s logic seems impeccable: If a student fails to demonstrate basic proficiency in English or math subject matter in, say, 5th grade, he or she has little business moving up to 6th grade. Schools do hold back some failing students, but only a small fraction. The rest continue on their merry way.

“Overall,” John writes, “22.6% of Virginia students did not pass the 2017 reading SOL tests while a mere 1.7% of the 2018 fall enrollment were students who had not been promoted.” (A similar discrepancy applies to math scores.)

I carried John’s logic one step further. I took the percentage of students at each school division that failed their English SOL tests. From that, I deducted the percentage of students that the school division held back. The result was the implied social-promotion rate.

I say “implied” because I suppose one could argue that not every child who fails his or her English SOL should be held back a grade. Perhaps some students miss passing by a narrow margin. Perhaps they score really well in math, writing, and history. Perhaps they get good grades. The figure should be seen as an upper bound, not a precise number.

But even with that very important caveat, there is enormous variability between the school systems. Richmond, Danville and Petersburg all have an implied social-promotion rate of 40%. Say we cut that in half. That still suggests those three cities are probably moving a lot of kids through school who aren’t mastering their grade-level material. Conversely, Falls Church, West Point and York County have extremely low implied social promotion rates — 7.6% or less. If we cut those numbers in half, it’s clear that social promotion is not a significant practice in those school systems.

I am the first to concede that this is a back-of-the-envelope metric. I’m sure VDOE could devise a more authoritative measure. But VDOE is unlikely to do so on its own: Social promotion is a problem that many would like to sweep under the rug. If citizens want useful measures of how their schools are performing, they need to speak up!

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5 responses to “Social Promotions: As High as 40% in Some School Districts?

  1. Might be some misunderstanding. Failing one SOL does not mean you get held back. In fact, you can fail more than one and not get held back. You can, in fact, pass all the SOLs and still get held back. There is a range of factors involved in deciding to hold back versus promote but remediate.

    Once again Bacon/Cranky predilection to muckrake… reveals a lack of understanding of education.

    The idea of “social promotion” itself is a bit outmoded. Each child is assessed by a variety of factors including emotional maturity, physical size (yes), as well as academics but unless the child is failing all subjects by wide margins – it’s a trade-off between getting them remedial help in the areas they are behind versus holding them back and they do not “fit” in that class on a broader scale.

    Perhaps you and Cranky should get to know some public school educators and bounce your ideas off of them before you blog shotgun style but then that might put a crimp in that “accountability” thing?

    Not healthy to be spending all of one’s time trying to figure out what else public education has done “wrong”…. 😉

    • Perhaps you missed this paragraph: “I say ‘implied’ because I suppose one could argue that not every child who fails his or her English SOL should be held back a grade. Perhaps some students miss passing by a narrow margin. Perhaps they score really well in math, writing, and history. Perhaps they get good grades. The figure should be seen as an upper bound, not a precise number.”

      • but then you went ahead with your “index” as if the approach was legitimate and relevant.

        The irony is that VDOE is providing the data (as 0pposed to not) and then it’s being used in inappropriate ways to basically impugn public education and for what purpose?

        There is no question what-so-ever that public education has some serious challenges in educating kids in general and specifically kids from disadvantaged circumstances that present no real good choices other than take the ones that can be taken and try.

        Virtually no non-public schools want this job – they want the easy-to-teach kids but I’m totally in favor of any/all competitive alternatives to public schools – as long as we hold both accountable to the same standards.

        I just think you and Cranky are more dedicated to muckraking and tearing down, sometimes, than real solutions…

        If I saw suggested alternatives from you guys – to balance out the criticisms – I’d be more on board with it.

  2. I’m not sure it much matters. If we can decide not to prosecute misdemeanors, non violent felonies, or suspend kids why should we bother with other social constructs likes test scores, grades, or diplomas?
    Just make sure to raise the college prices because those diplomas are “valuable”.
    Have y’all read the Blue Virginia Richmond Schools piece? It is beyond fascinating.

  3. We are being challenged – “we” – all of us. As a country, “we” already have more people in prison than any other country and yet “we” still advocate for “more” without every really looking at what is happening to our country.

    It’s fairly simple – we have a huge divide between those who are well off and “ok” and a stubborn under-class that is not – and we have a choice – we can work to improve or we can give up and just throw them all in jail.

    Make no mistake. This is on US ! We can be ignorant and hell-bent on further damage or we can take some responsibility for trying to do at least as good as our European and Asian competitors.

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