What You Need to Know about Social Promotion

Everyday in the press we read horror stories of students graduating from high school without being able to read, do simple arithmetic or find the United States on a map. In every neighborhood such children exist and often their parents have little knowledge about their school’s social promotion practices. In an effort to curb this automatic passing from grade to grade – called “social promotion” – schools are taking serious steps. For example, in Texas, Florida, Chicago and New York, school officials are requiring students to demonstrate grade-level knowledge in order to advance to the next grade. Elsewhere school officials are introducing new or recently revamped achievement exams.

This new generation of state level testing is intended to hold all children to a higher standard. The theory is that clear, rigorous standards for all will lead to fewer cases of social promotion.

In either case, students who do not meet the prescribed standard of learning will have opportunities to catch up. They may be assigned to summer school or after-school tutoring. If after remedial help they still cannot pass the tests, the children may face staying back a grade.
Rhetoric about social promotion abounds, but what can you do as a parent?

1. Make sure you know what is required of your child to pass to the next grade. Are the guidelines clear, specific and rigorous? Is anyone responsible for guaranteeing that your child meets the requirements?

2. Support higher standards! Even if it takes your child an extra year to meet them, it will be better for him in the long run.

Valedictorians and Class Rank: Headed for Extinction?

Each May and June the familiar strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” carry a time-honored high school commencement tradition closer to oblivion. The valedictorian, once the esteemed embodiment of the highest scholarly achievement in a graduating class, is already exiled from many public school systems – banished along with class rank as an embarrassing symbol of elitism.

This national trend has confused and disturbed parents, who wonder why schools readily reward a stellar athlete’s feats on the basketball court or football field but find it reprehensible to recognize a student’s academic achievements in the classroom.

There are two sides to every debate, of course, but it is helpful to consider the “vanishing valedictorian” issue in a cultural context.
American society has long been characterized as “anti-intellectual” with a populace that values hard work and physical accomplishments over intellectual prowess. During the past several decades, however, our nation’s generally lax approach to academics resulted in poor performance of American students on important international tests. This inspired the current K-12 standards movement to raise the achievement levels of all students.

In scuttling class rank and the valedictory tradition, the education community seems to be at cross-purposes – not only with parents, policymakers and the public, but also with its own obligation to encourage academic excellence. On the one hand, educators speak of the need to motivate children – especially the disadvantaged urban poor – to strive for higher academic goals against all adversity, including pressure from peers who wear academic failure as a badge of honor. On the other hand, they don’t want any child to think that he or she is not the equal of every other child. That has led to the self-esteem building trend, which often results in schools giving awards for minimal accomplishment just so students can feel good about themselves. These same educators then argue that recognizing only a few academically outstanding students will damage the self-esteem of those who do not or cannot operate in the same stratosphere as the high achievers. Worse, the good students are made to feel badly for being smart and many stop trying to excel. Why so many educators hew to this philosophy is perplexing because there is no evidence of similar concern, for example, for the psyche of the benchwarmers on a school’s football or basketball team.

Educators argue, too, that the traditional system of class rank in which the top-scoring student becomes the valedictorian hurts the brightest students because it causes them to focus on grades and competition (as if that’s a bad thing) rather than learning.

How to assess grading

How do you know how your school evaluates children? Here are a few ways to find out and help.

1. Whether your child’s school utilizes a traditional grading style or new-style grades, make sure that the mark he receives reflects the quality of the work he does. If your child hands in a paper riddled with spelling errors and receives an A, you need to raise this with the teacher and convey your own expectations.

2. What are the criteria for each grade? Are there specific benchmarks that must be met to earn each of these grades? Just like the need for standards in states, across school districts and in schools, children learn what is taught and what is taught needs to be measured.

3. Finally, talk to your child’s teacher – and possibly your parent group and the principal, too – about the purpose of the grading system. What is it supposed to measure? Make sure that it is firmly based on what your child has learned and the knowledge she has acquired. Watch for goals that are cloaked in phrases like “to raise self-esteem” or “increase awareness of others.” Grades measure objective academic progress. While some of these cognitive or behavior goals may be important for children, the job of the school is to ensure the acquisition of knowledge.

School Report Cards

States must issue report cards to show parents which schools and districts are succeeding and why. But these report cards are often very difficult to understand and track, especially if you don’t know what a particular test grade for a school or district means. While it’s ok and possibly helpful to review these if you have access to the web, we’d recommend that you spend your time instead asking specific questions of your school about how they are ranked.

World Wide Web

These rankings are typically found on the web, which you can access in your library if you don’t have internet access at home or work.
Report cards are supposed to contain information about the following:

1. comparisons of how well your students do compared to others in the state, broken down by grade level, race, economic status, etc.
2. high school graduate rates (how many students drop out)
3. number and names of schools identified for improvement
4. qualifications of teachers


The newspapers are following closely the progress being made in your schools. While few parents have time to read the papers every day, your library can help.

Ask the School

The schools know where they fall on the lists. You can and should talk to them about where the school is on the various report cards. You can expect that they will be honest, but not always happy about the label. Let them know you care but that you need to know as a parent how best to educate your child.