For students and their families, this movement has had a very practical influence: Accountability measures can determine whether a student is performing below grade level and whether her learning progress is lagging behind her peers. The rules in 16 states and Washington, D.C., require that schools hold students back if they are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. If a school has unacceptably low test scores, the state can intervene. If a student misses too many days or can’t pass core courses, she can be retained in her current grade. If a student doesn’t meet all of the state’s graduation requirements, the school can deny her a diploma.
In reality, there are still ways for schools to push along struggling students—quietly sending underprepared students to the next grade; providing “credit recovery” opportunities; allowing students to take tests several times; offering alternative pathways to a diploma. But tests telling parents that their children are below grade level and school ratings indicating achievement problems make it tough to conceal underperformance. Social promotion may help administrators avoid the challenges and stigmas associated with forcing a student to repeat a grade, and it helps more graduate from high school. But the practice of simply advancing students gives an inflated sense of what our young people are actually learning, devalues the diploma, and will ultimately be revealed in public reports.
When these policies were written, no one anticipated a once-in-a-century event would inhibit learning for tens of millions of students. The system is in a bind if people take seriously the notion that moving from one grade to the next or earning a diploma should be contingent on completing a particular course of study. Administrators now face several undesirable options.
The most immediate issue is deciding what to do with students scheduled to graduate this year. Many won’t have enough “seat time,” they will not have completed some required courses, and they will not have passed some required graduation tests. In most places, the local board, the state board of education, or the state superintendent can waive such requirements; in other cases, a longer regulatory process will be required.
People might think—administrative machinations aside—that ignoring such policies this one time isn’t really that big of a deal. That this action would affect just one cohort of students; that they missed only a few months of instruction; and that employers or colleges can address their academic deficits once things return to normal. But the consequences stretch beyond the class of 2020. Some current 9th, 10th, and 11th graders are not going to get credit and/or pass tests that they would typically need to qualify for a diploma. Perhaps state administrators will mandate summer school or remedial coursework. Or perhaps they will lessen the number of courses required for graduation for the classes of 2020 to 2023. Or maybe they will decide that particular courses—say, Algebra II or World History—won’t be required for graduation. These will not be easy calls.
Each of these matters requires a discrete decision, but together they constitute a broader issue. Unless state officials steadfastly require students to make up all of these courses and pass all of these tests, several graduating classes will not have the academic records that have been deemed essential for high-school graduation.
The consequences of social promotion also stretch back to lower grades. Most, if not all, states will make use of recent federal flexibility and cancel this spring’s reading and math assessments for elementary and middle-school students. Presumably, administrators will also suspend district and school report cards, which are largely based on results from those tests. So for some time, the annual state determinations of school quality will be halted.
Even if states take these sensible actions, these younger students will have learned less than state standards require—unless their districts were miraculously adept at shifting to online learning. Some districts, though, have struggled mightily. For instance, Fairfax County Public Schools, one of the nation’s largest districts, has had, according to The Washington Post, a “disastrous debut of online learning.” It took four weeks to roll out and then suffered two failed attempts, ultimately leading to a public dispute with the district’s platform provider and the departure of the district’s technology chief.
A new study by Nat Malkus, Cody Christensen, and Lexi West of the American Enterprise Institute found that by early April, only 71 percent of schools were in districts with some type of remote instructional practices. And there is wide variation in the types of instruction available and whether it is mandatory. For example, about 60 percent of schools are in districts making worksheets and packets available, but in more than 40 percent of these cases, the districts expressed no clear requirement that students participate. Given these statistics, it seems inevitable that many schools will be passing students along to the next grade despite their significantly reduced opportunity to learn, making for arguably the largest social-promotion initiative of the accountability era.
The mechanics and consequences of alternative plans leave educators little choice. At this point, 36 states and Washington, D.C., have closed schools for the remainder of the year, so a Herculean in-school remediation effort prior to summer break would be impossible. If an elementary school holds back all of this year’s students, it would suddenly be overcrowded in the fall—serving this year’s cohort plus the next group of kindergarteners. A massive, district-run summer-school program is conceivable, but the costs may be all but prohibitive; with state and local tax revenues collapsing, districts would need to somehow find the funds to pay for the teachers, administrators, bus drivers, materials, and more for unplanned weeks or months of schooling.
Once schools are back to regular operations, a district could attempt to assess each student, set a cut line for passable achievement, and then move forward students accordingly. But that line would be arbitrary (Should 5 percent of students be held back? Maybe 20 percent?), and educators would suddenly face scads of frustrated families. Moreover, any assessment would capture effects caused by influences other than school closures. For example, considering that, on average, low-income students and students of color have lower achievement scores, and that more affluent families have probably been better positioned to continue home instruction during closures, any large-scale effort to hold back students will disproportionately affect disadvantaged boys and girls.
Moving everyone along to the next grade may be the only choice, but it is still imperfect. If, for instance, schools pass all third graders on to fourth grade even though they learned less than expected, schools are setting up the kids for tough times when they have to take their mandated tests next spring. Will state administrators simply count on next year’s teachers to compensate for their students’ lost class time? Will officials lower the passing scores for next year’s tests in recognition of students’ lack of opportunity to learn?
Educators’ creative problem-solving in the months ahead will take place in the context of decades’ worth of accountability policies. Yesterday’s leaders did the right thing by instituting clear guidelines and meaningful consequences. Most of today’s leaders will, understandably, see the judicious move as passing students along. Without much public notice, countless teachers, school leaders, and district administrators have done an admirable job figuring out how to pivot to remote learning, ensure that students with special needs get services, make sure that low-income kids have access to free meals, and much more. When young people finally go back to school, these educators will also need to dive into the massive task of helping the millions of students who have fallen behind.
Image credit: Matej Kastelic