Despite failing nearly every class since the sixth grade, Tyler Thompson is now a freshman at a Sandpoint high school.
When his mother questioned school administrators in two North Idaho school districts about why they were continuing to send her son on to the next grade level every year, she remembers their explanations focused on his size and age – he’s 15 years old, 6-foot-5 and built like a linebacker.
When Kristi Thompson asked Tyler why he didn’t try harder in school, the teen told her, “They’re going to pass me anyway, Mom.”
The decision to move a student from grade to grade despite a lack of academic achievement – commonly referred to as social promotion – has been controversial for decades. Although President Bill Clinton called for a ban on the practice in the 1990s, the decision to end it remains at the state and local levels.
Educators and parents are reluctant to admit it happens. But Kristi Thompson worries her son will flunk out of high school with a fifth-grade education.
“I just feel the whole system has failed him and I can’t get him out of it,” she said.
Advocates for social promotion argue that holding a student back does little for their future academic achievement and is not cost effective. Those who are against promotion say it sends the wrong message about being rewarded without working. And, they say, teachers have to spend more time with an unprepared student, and the practice sets up the student for failure.
More than half the states allow the practice, according to the U.S. Department of Education. But as achievement and high school graduation gain emphasis, more states are ending social promotion. Governors in Florida and Nevada announced plans earlier this month to end the practice, at least in certain grades.
Idaho education officials hope to eventually end social promotion with a new middle school credit system. The statewide practice that began last year directs school districts to require seventh- and eighth-graders to pass 80 percent of their classes before promoting them to high school.
“The perception was out there that middle school students were going to move on regardless,” said Rob Sauer, Idaho Department of Education deputy superintendent. “They didn’t think middle school counted, and they developed some really bad habits.”
Washington has no specific law regarding achievement in middle school, but Spokane Public Schools’ board says social promotion has ended effective this school year, and the district administration has created several intervention programs designed to catch failing students early.
“We have a lot of programs in high school to help kids be successful, but that’s almost like parking an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff instead of building a fence at the top,” said Sue Chapin, Spokane Public Schools board president. “We want to catch kids before they get to a place where their failure is hard to get out of. We want to intervene early.”
Tyler is quiet and awkward. He has a hard time making friends, and despite his stature says he’s often been a target of bullies.
He rarely smiles. During a recent interview, Tyler was blunt: “I don’t like school.”
Tyler’s grades started to falter beginning in the fifth grade in the Lakeland Joint School District in Rathdrum, and through middle school in the Boundary County School District.
Frustrated, his mother pulled her son out of school in seventh grade so she could home-school him, she said. But a week later, his dad, Ken Thompson, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Ken Thompson died within a few months. When Tyler went back to school, he was repeating the seventh grade.
Although Boundary County Middle School Principal Dick Behrens couldn’t discuss Tyler’s situation specifically, he said whenever a middle school student is failing educators try to intervene.
“Starting about midterm, we begin to identify students who are not successful,” Behrens said. “There are before- and after-school tutoring opportunities. We also try to find something to engage the student in.
“Most of the time if a student fails a class, they are refusing to do the work,” he added.
Tyler’s records from the eighth grade reflect that assessment.
One entry on his report card reads: “Does not turn in work – I gave him several opportunities to turn it in, but he didn’t want to.” That comment was followed by similar remarks from other instructors, according to school documents provided by his mother.
Behrens said that deciding whether to hold a student back or socially promote him or her is “gut-wrenching” for any educator.
“We try to weigh things,” Behrens said. “We look at attendance and behavior issues. Is a student learning? One of the biggest things we look at is how a student’s doing on the Idaho Standards Achievement Test. We also consider age. Having a 16-year-old in a building with 11-year-olds doesn’t really work.”
According to his ISAT scores from middle school, Tyler was proficient in math, science and language usage, and advanced in reading, documents show.
The teen is now attending Lake Pend Oreille Alternative School in Sandpoint. While Tyler was not inclined to put forth an effort at school in previous years, this year is different.
Not only does he need to pass his classes to get a high school diploma so he can fulfill his dream of becoming an auto mechanic, but there are also legal consequences.
When he was in the eighth grade, he pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance for taking some of his mom’s pain pills.
The felony conviction will go away if he stays out of trouble, but one of the conditions of his probation is doing well in school.
Said Tyler, “If I try my hardest and I still fail, then there’s nothing I can do.”
Ending social promotion
Nearly 60 studies have been written about the pros and cons of promotion versus retention, according to one report.
Generally, “flunked students perform worse and drop out of school at higher rates,” according to an analysis by K12 Academics, a national education resource website. “For those held back two or more grades, the dropout rate is nearly 100 percent.”
In contrast, according to the U.S. Department of Education, “Research indicates, and common sense confirms, that passing students on to the next grade when they are unprepared neither increases student achievement nor properly prepares students for college and future employment.”
No national data is kept regarding social promotion, and neither Idaho nor Washington has any statewide statistics. Inland Northwest school districts reluctantly admitted it occurs, but they don’t track official numbers.
The U.S. Department of Education concluded the result of either retention or promotion is “unacceptably high dropout rates, especially for poor and minority students.”
The key to helping students succeed in school is intervention, early and often, educators say.
Idaho, for example, requires districts to offer intervention programs as part of its new middle school credit system – one-on-one or group instruction based on the individual’s learning needs, state officials said.
The first check of students is done six weeks after the school year starts.
“I would be cautious with social promotion now that we have a program in place,” said Sauer, of the Idaho Department of Education. “Students are going to be held to a higher standard. If we promote them without the skills necessary, then we are setting them up for failure.”
That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, however.
“We obviously need to have a mechanism in place that allows for an alternate route and flexibility,” Sauer said. “Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances and we’d be remiss if we didn’t take those into consideration.”
Social promotion became an issue for Spokane Public Schools after the administration realized a third of high school freshmen were failing one or more classes at the end of the first semester, officials said.
The school board took a stance to end the practice effective this school year. “As a board, we really talked about the fact that the kids who fail in high school didn’t just start failing in high school,” said Chapin, the school board president. “High school is just part of the continuum.”
The district is taking the approach that “the minute students get off track in middle school there’s going to be intervention,” Chapin said.
Although the district’s budget had to be cut this year, helping middle school students meet academic marks was made a priority.
Individual Credit Advancement Now, or ICAN, requires students who don’t pass math or language arts to stay after school for tutoring. It will involve Spokane Virtual Learning as well as their classroom teacher.
In addition, a new assessment tool tests students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades in math and reading, “so we can catch kids who are falling behind sooner,” Chapin said.
There are also summer school programs to help students catch up in core curriculum areas.
“This is a culture change. Years ago the middle school mantra was ‘nurture the social and emotional,’ ” Chapin said. “We’re still doing that, but more.”