School Mental Health Project

Student Retention or Social Promotion: What's Appropriate?

From the Los Angeles Times (2/22/04):

Vowing to end social promotion ... Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced last month that scores on the standardized English and math tests given this spring would be the only factors used to determine whether a third-grader moved on or was held back.

It is estimated that 15,000 third graders will be retained in NY. About 3,750 were left back last year.

While the debate about retention/social promotion is long-standing, it has heated up because of high stakes testing and concerns that kids are bearing the brunt of system failures. And, concern also has been voiced about the either-or nature of the debate which tends to ignore the importance of finding ways to provide the learning supports students need when they are not doing well at school.

Some of the debate hinges on mental health considerations. This is reflected in the New York situation where the Mayor notes:

People say, "Well, the child's self-esteem will be hurt, if they're kept back." What about their self-esteem when everybody else in the room is reading and they can't.

Some would say this misrepresents the situation.

As many have cautioned over the years, if we just focus on raising standards, we will see increasing numbers who can't pass the test to get into the next grade and the elementary and middle school classrooms will bulge and the "push out" rates will surge.

A recent American Federation of Teachers' report estimates that between 15 and 19 percent of the nation's students are held back each year and as many as 50% of those in large urban schools are held back at least once.

It should also be noted that

  • research has not found long-term benefits from simply retaining students -- that is most students do not catch up and those who make some gains tend to lag behind again as they move to higher grades

  • when students are kept back, they exhibit considerable reactance -- displaying social and mental health problems, such as negative attitudes toward teachers and school, misbehavior, symptoms of anxiety and depression, and so forth

  • most schools are ill-prepared to respond with enough proactive programs to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of students who are not ready to move on.

Want to know more?

First, browse the Center Newsletter article entitled: Denying Social Promotion Obligates Schools to Do More to Address Barriers to Learning (fall, 1998).

Then, go to the Center website's Quick Find on "Social Promotion" (

There you will find links to online documents on retention/social promotion such as

Also, see various Center documents on providing learning supports to address barriers to learning.

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