A typical 8th grade public school student is 13 or 14 years old. But in thousands of cases each year in Tennessee, 8th grade students do not earn enough credits to move on to 9th grade. That could mean a student who is 15, 16 or older is kept behind in 8th grade if not for a common practice in Tennessee public schools called social promotion.
“Social promotion allows the principal to make decisions to promote that kid on to the next level for several reasons, based on what’s best for the kids in the class and what’s best for the student who’s obtaining the social promotion,” says Jay Steele, associate superintendent of high schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools.
Steele says the principals of both schools must agree to the social promotion, but it’s an important tool for school administrators and involves more than the student’s age.
“Holding a 15 or 16 year old back and keeping them in a class of 12 year olds, that is a concern as a parent I would understand that concern also. And, is the child receiving any benefit from being held back?”
According to Tennessee Department of Education figures, about 8,000 Tennessee 8th grade students scored below basic level in reading—a benchmark for advancing to the next grade. But the idea of socially promoting over-age students should stop, says to Tennessee Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown).
“There are thousands of students that are simply being pushed through the system and it’s wrong and it’s unfair and its setting them up for failure.”
Sen. Kelsey is co-sponsoring a bill (SB 2156) to end social promotion from 8th grade to high school—similar to a Tennessee bill passed last year that outlaws third-grade social promotion in public schools. Kelsey says his research shows that about 45,000 students in Tennessee are socially promoted each year.
“High school is the level at which most of our students in Tennessee drop out from school. And so if we are sending students to high school and they don’t have the skills to succeed there, then we’re basically setting them up for failure and setting them up to drop out,” says Kelsey.
But dropping out is just as likely if a student is not promoted, according to some public school educators. They say changing the law without funding for programs to help failing students could be disastrous.
“I think if the law allowed flexibility for a district to be creative and design those programs based on the needs of the kids, That’s what’s important,” says Steele. “It’s difficult to make a blanket statement that no social promotion takes place when you’re not considering the needs of every child. Family situations, health—there are so many things that affect an urban student’s life.”
Steele says Nashville school officials will ask the School Board to fund a “bridge” program designed for students who are over-age and under credit in grades 8 through 10. The program will provide quick, intensive academic help for students to help them earn credits at a faster pace, get back on track to return to a traditional high school and graduate.
“Things like the course recovery, credit recovery programs; virtual programs; extended day and night offerings. We have to be very creative in how we offer the curriculum to those students in order to let them catch up,” says Steele.
He says the MNPS balanced calendar beginning next year will be an advantage in early identification of students who need academic intervention. The balanced calendar includes intersession periods in the fall and spring during which students can take remedial or enrichment courses.