SOCIAL promotion is common in Oklahoma, particularly in schools serving low-income children. This strengthens the case for a new law requiring third-grade students to master reading before advancing. It could even help break the cycle of poverty.
Oklahoma Watch found a distressing 38 percent of third-graders scored below “proficient” on state reading tests at schools whose student populations were overwhelmingly low income. Without intervention, many of these students face long-term academic struggles. Future grades require reading to learn, instead of simply learning to read.
The new law stresses early intervention. It provides for retention only as a last resort. Yet critics insist that repeating a grade is somehow more detrimental than sending a child unprepared into higher grades.
Among the supposed calamities tied to retention: A child who repeats a grade may reach puberty before classmates and experience social problems. But children don't experience puberty at the same age. Just ask anyone who was the first in their class to hit puberty — or the last. Adolescence involves social stress for every child, not just those who repeat a grade. More substantively, some critics claim retention provides only short-term gains. But has advancing children unprepared into higher grades generated improvement? No!
In 2007, National Assessment of Educational Progress results found that only 26 percent of Oklahoma fourth-graders were proficient or advanced in reading. Four years later, 2011 NAEP results showed just 27 percent of those by-then eighth-graders achieved that distinction. Social promotion didn't dramatically boost reading mastery as children advanced, even if social stigma was supposedly avoided.
Viewing students' self-esteem as more important than (and unrelated to) academic performance is a common problem. Consider the Oklahoma City school district, where administrators insist students automatically get passing grades in classes if they pass a corresponding state end-of-instruction exam. That's ridiculous, because those state exams are designed only to prove minimal competency; students can miss up to half the questions and still pass.
Shelly Campbell, who teaches junior English classes, says the grading policy has caused students to stop doing school work. Just seven of 64 students in her class recently turned in homework. She rightly decries the district's informal policy, which disincentivizes learning.
We support the graduation standards as an important tool to prevent schools from issuing diplomas to students who clearly don't have a minimal high school education. But those standards are designed as an academic floor; Oklahoma City officials are turning them into a ceiling.
Emphasizing students' self-esteem rather than actual learning has serious long-term negative consequences. The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education reports 38 percent of Oklahoma students graduating from high school in 2010 and enrolling in college took at least one remedial course. College remediation rates for some high schools' graduates were as high as 90 percent.
Harsher impacts can be seen in Oklahoma Department of Corrections' data. In fiscal year 2011, state prisons tested 8,126 offenders. Nearly a fourth of them read at or below the fifth-grade level; 91.2 percent read at or below the ninth-grade level.
This is a case where the obvious impulse is the correct response. Social promotion and grade inflation harm children and should be ended. Students' self-esteem should be based on actual achievement. It does no good to give a child an “education” that doesn't include academic learning.