5. Limit Social Promotion for Third-Graders

A social-promotion ban should be the next policy for Michigan to consider. In particular, Florida’s emphasis on third-grade reading has support in the education research literature. Students who fail to master third-grade reading are more likely to struggle in later grades and drop out of high school.[68]

There is some evidence that Florida’s prohibition on social promotion for third-graders who lack reading proficiency has had positive effects on student achievement. A 2004 Manhattan Institute study of the Florida policy found that compared to other students who were socially promoted to the fourth grade, third-graders who were held back made statistically significant gains in math and reading.[69] A follow-up study found that gains were greater in the second year after the retention than in the first, suggesting that third-grade retention can generate lasting positive effects.[70]

Florida’s ban on social promotion from third grade did have a relatively broad impact, affecting every third-grader and arguably improving their results in later years. Nevertheless, it did not have as far-reaching an impact as the reforms recommended above, which tended to affect the performance of entire schools and districts. In addition, this program was not implemented in Florida until the 2002-2003 school year, so it could not have been responsible for Florida’s early gains.

Michigan does not have a statewide policy regarding social promotion for any grade level. The decision about students’ grade levels rests with individual school boards, and their policies regarding the promotion of students may or may not be based on standardized achievement scores.[71]

Michigan should explore ending social promotion for third-graders who have not mastered basic reading skills. This policy would require schools to diagnose learning deficiencies early in a student’s schooling and respond accordingly — a case where an ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure. Such a policy also encourages parents to pay close attention to their children’s early educational performance, since very few parents want to see their children retained.

At least nine other states have had similar policies for many years.[72] News reports indicate that Tennessee and Oklahoma have enacted third-grade social-promotion bans based on Florida’s model.[73]

[68] See, for instance, Joy Lesnick et al., “Reading on Grade Level in Third Grade: How Is It Related to High School Performance and College Enrollment?: A Longitudinal Analysis of Third-Grade Students in Chicago in 1996-97 and Their Educational Outcomes,” (Chapin Hall; University of Chicago, 2010), http://goo.gl/Lg1VZ (accessed March 22, 2013); Donald J. Hernandez, “Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation,” (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2012), http://goo.gl/LJTBL (accessed March 22, 2013).

[69] Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters, “An Evaluation of Florida’s Program to End Social Promotion,” (Manhattan Institute, 2004), 7-9, http://goo.gl/ilnwO (accessed May 31, 2013).

[70] Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters, “Getting Farther Ahead by Staying Behind: A Second-Year Evaluation of Florida’s Policy to End Social Promotion,” (Manhattan Institute, 2006), 9-10, http://goo.gl/eZaUn (accessed May 31, 2013).

[71] “Grade Promotion and Retention,” (Michigan Department of Education, 2011), http://goo.gl/eDrDE (accessed May 31, 2013).

[72] Greene and Winters, “An Evaluation of Florida’s Program to End Social Promotion,” (Manhattan Institute, 2004), 2, http://goo.gl/ilnwO (accessed May 31, 2013).

[73] Lola Alapo, “Tennessee law ends social promotion of third-grade students,” Knoxville News Sentinel, June 13, 2011, http://goo.gl/ 2ETPX (accessed May 31, 2013); Michael McNutt, “Oklahoma governor signs bill intended to end social promotion in public schools,” Oklahoman, May 5, 2011, http://goo.gl/OllFe (accessed May 31, 2013).