It’s time to stop social promotion, the practice of passing third-graders who can’t read on to fourth grade.
It’s more common than you might think. An astonishing 44 percent of Arizona third-graders scored “below basic” on NAEP, the nation’s report card, last year. Even according to the more lenient standards of the Arizona Department of Education, 3,000 third-graders leave school every spring unable to read.
Even though this is unacceptable, the problem is largely ignored. You can see why holding students back is unpopular. Parents aren’t thrilled to be told their little Johnny isn’t cutting it and needs to repeat a year. The student takes a hit to his self-esteem, considered these days to be so fragile. Teachers and principals don’t want “failure” stamped on their records too often.
But social promotion is deadly. A child unable to read by the end of third grade is highly unlikely to ever become a good reader or an educated, productive citizen. Until third grade, students are learning to read. After that, they are reading to learn, using their assumed reading skills to access knowledge and ideas. Students unable to read are outsiders at that point.
They become frustrated and ashamed. They learn to loathe school. Many acquire disciplinary records in high school and eventually drop out.
Social promotion not only harms students, it has a corrosive effect on the educational culture of the schools. As it is, educators can explain away the reason so many students fail to learn to read. Poor parenting is a common problem. Lack of funding and large classroom sizes are also cited, even though those factors have improved substantially over recent decades. But no matter which obstacles are blamed, educators aren’t really forced to do anything about it. They can literally pass the problem on.
If social promotion was eliminated, this would all change. The reasons for failure wouldn’t matter. Instead, schools would have to adopt a laser-like focus on doing whatever it took to assure that all students in the school could read by the end of third grade.
The good news is that it can be done. Despite the disappointing record, we already know how to teach children to read. There are teachers and schools today who have 100 percent success records in teaching children of all backgrounds to read. It takes talent, determination and phonics. We’re not asking our schools to do the impossible.
Eliminating social promotion isn’t a new idea. Ironically, teachers unions and other defenders of the status quo have prevailed in the past by arguing that the problem is too big to solve. It would be too disruptive and expensive to have thousands more third-graders and fewer fourth-graders in the system. Of course that assumes that schools wouldn’t respond positively to the heightened incentives.
Help is on the way. HB 2725, the Arizona bill requiring non-readers to be retained in third grade, is progressing through the Legislature. It is in play along with other bills that provide for alternate teacher certification, expanded school choice and labeling schools with letter grades rather than bureaucratic words like “performing.” These measures were adopted in Florida, where under former Gov. Jeb Bush they ignited a surge in academic achievement.
For example, Florida’s Hispanic students now score a full year better than Arizona’s overall average on the NAEP. Black students have come from two years behind to tie Arizona’s statewide score. That’s huge. It puts the establishment opponents of these changes in a difficult moral position when the benefit to disadvantaged students is so clear.
Right now, we have the opportunity to stop social promotion and all the damage it does to the lifetime prospects of its victims. We can’t let this opportunity slip away.
East Valley resident Tom Patterson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired physician and former state senator.