• by Pam McCollum, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • April 1999

Pam McCollumPoliticians nationwide are jumping on the “end social promotion” bandwagon to emphasize their determination to raise educational standards. Unfortunately, they fail to acknowledge the ill-effects – both academic and social – to students who are required to repeat an entire year of schooling (Shepard and Smith, 1989).

Over a year ago, Texas Governor Bush announced that the practice of social promotion would no longer be tolerated in Texas. He denounced passing students who had not mastered all of the required curriculum on to the next grade and made the eradication of social promotion the centerpiece of his campaign.

The governor’s anti-social promotion position was crafted into Senate Bill 1 by Senator Teel Bivins (D-Amarillo). The bill emphasizes early detection of reading problems, beginning in kindergarten, with intensive reading instruction for low performing students. It is essentially a “promotional gates” program, which retains third, fifth and eighth grade students in-grade if they do not perform at acceptable levels.

If Senate Bill 1 is passed into law, students entering kindergarten in the fall of 1999 will have their reading development evaluated through reading inventories in kindergarten, first grade and second grade. Students who perform below expected levels will receive intensive reading instruction from teachers trained in intensive reading instruction. The bill sets aside $200 million to fund the program, which will pay teachers a $150 stipend to receive the training.

Beginning in the 2002-03 school year, third graders will be required to pass the reading and math sections of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) with a score of 70 or above to be promoted. Students who fail will get two more opportunities to pass the TAAS after attending mandatory summer school. In its original form, Senate Bill 1 called for retaining students in-grade after a third failed attempt at passing the TAAS. In its present form, the bill provides for the exercise of local options through the action of a “grade placement committee” whose charge is to decide grade placement on an individual basis. In eighth grade, students will be required to score at acceptable levels on the TAAS tests in reading, math and writing.

After hearing testimony from educational administrators, business leaders and professional organizations, the Senate education committee passed Senate Bill 1 with a vote of 8 ayes, 0 nays and 1 abstention. Only IDRA and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) presented testimony attesting to the negative consequences of retaining students, primarily minorities, in grade and its potential for contributing to the already alarming dropout rate among minority youth.

Senator Royce West (D-Dallas) was the only committee member to voice concerns over the bill. He stated the level of funding was insufficient to adequately fund the effort and questioned whether specially trained teachers would be available in minority neighborhoods, precisely those that will be most affected if the bill is passed into law.

The bill was passed by the senate with a unanimous vote on February 18, 1999. It is now being considered by the House of Representatives where Representative Paul Sadler, the chair of the House education committee, is taking a more studied approach to the issues in the bill. He said he is not sure retention is in students’ best interest, and he is exploring other options such as smaller class size and early intervention as strategies to improve student achievement. He and other committee members also question whether or not it is advisable to pass this type of educational policy into law without considering its long-term effects once the heat of campaign rhetoric and promises have ended. The House of Representatives must vote on Senate Bill 1 by May 22, 1999. So far, a vote has not been scheduled.

IDRA released a policy brief in March finding that 50 percent of students who repeat a grade do no better the second time, and 25 percent actually do worse (McCollum, Cortez, Montes and Maroney, 1999). The research on the ineffectiveness of retention is very clear. The effects of retention are harmful, reports Failing Our Children – Finding Alternatives to In-Grade Retention. The brief presents an in-depth look at the issue of in-grade retention (particularly in Texas), reviews research that finds this practice to be ineffective, and outlines alternatives to both retention and social promotion. Key findings include:

  • Retention is strongly associated with dropping out of school in later years. A second retention makes dropping out a virtual certainty.
  • The cost of retaining students in Texas in 1996-97 was $694 million.
  • During 1993 to 1997, retention rates in Texas have steadily risen. In the 1996-97 school year, 147,202 students were retained in grade.
  • Retention rates in Texas for Hispanic students and African American students are over two and a half times higher than the rates of White students.

The policy brief was released as the Texas legislature first considered proposals that would further increase rates of retention. The brief was developed by the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership as part of a series on four key issues in education designed to inform community and policy decisions during the Texas legislative session and beyond. Two of the other policy briefs in the series (Missing: Texas Youth – Dropout and Attrition Rates in Texas Public High Schools and Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs in Texas – What is Known; What is Needed) were released in February. The fourth (on the use of public money for private schooling) will be released soon.


Shepard, L.S. and M.L. Smith (Eds.). Flunking Grades: Research and Policies on Retention. (New York: The Falmer Press, 1989).

McCollum, P. and A. Cortez, F. Montes and O.H. Maroney. Failing Our Children – Finding Alternatives to In-Grade Retention (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1999).

Pam McCollum, Ph.D., is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

“Failing Our Children – Finding Alternatives to In-Grade Retention – and the other released policy briefs are on-line at www.idra.org. Copies are available for $7 each.

[©1999, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 1999 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]