Social Promotion Is Declining Steadily in U.S. Schools

A report on raising standards shows less social promotion, more students attending summer school, and few signs of backlash


NEW YORK -- The number of teachers who say their own schools practice social promotion has dropped from 41% to 31% over the last four years, according to a new nationwide survey by nonpartisan, nonprofit Public Agenda. Reality Check 2001, which surveys teachers, parents, students, employers and college professors on standards in their community, was published in today's issue of Education Week. It also shows an increase in summer school attendance and more positive attitudes among parents about standards in public schools.

This fourth edition of Reality Check, made possible by The Pew Charitable Trusts, with additional support from the GE Fund, also reveals that computers, like standards, are slowly but surely recasting the way American students learn.

Students, parents, and teachers all report a set of incremental changes in their experiences and expectations, suggesting that the 'standards movement' has begun to take hold, the report states. Among the survey's highlights:

  • The number of teachers who say more students are attending summer school has jumped, from 28% four years ago to 37%.
  • The number of teachers who say students now take summer school seriously has risen to 53%, an increase of ten percentage points since 1998.
  • The number of parents who say local public schools have higher standards than local private schools is up, from 22% in 1998 to 34%.
  • And the number of parents who say private schools have higher standards has fallen from 42% four years ago to 35% today.

Despite broad concern about a so-called backlash to standards and testing, Reality Check shows almost no desire to turn back the clock, says Deborah Wadsworth, President, Public Agenda.

  • Just 1% of parents, less than 1% of teachers, 2% of employers, and 1% of professors who know their districts are raising standards say local schools should discontinue their current efforts.
  • Eighty-one percent of parents, 80% of teachers, 86% of employers, and 71% of professors say local schools are being careful and reasonable in putting standards in place.
  • Fifty-nine percent of parents, 69% of employers, and 50% of professors want the standards initiative to proceed as planned.
  • While few teachers would discontinue the effort, they are more likely to want adjustments. Almost half (48%) want to continue the standards initiative as planned, but 47% say that they would continue but make some adjustments.

Taken as a whole, Reality Check shows a broad and impressive endorsement of the direction standards reformers have chosen, says Ms. Wadsworth.

It is enormously encouraging that Public Agenda's Reality Check finds that efforts to raise academic standards are beginning to bear fruit in the classroom, states Virginia B. Edwards, editor and publisher of Education Week. Reality Check confirms and amplifies many of the results of Education Week's Quality Counts, published last month.

Complex Views on Standardized Testing

The current Reality Check and earlier Public Agenda survey work reveal complex views on standardized testing. Most parents and teachers back the use of high-stakes standardized tests to motivate students and identify those who are struggling. Yet parents and teachers both strongly oppose basing promotion or graduation solely on the results of one test. And teachers voice concern that learning may be neglected because of an overemphasis on tests:

  • Eighty-one percent of parents and 62% of teachers agree that testing younger students is a good way to identify those who need special help.
  • But, very large majorities of teachers and parents (90% and 75% respectively) say it is wrong to use the results of just one test to decide whether a student gets promoted or graduates.
  • Most teachers (79%) say test preparation is not eating into real learning in their own classrooms now, but 83% fear this could happen in the future.
  • Just 3% of teachers say their districts currently base promotion solely on test scores.

Little Anxiety among Students

Students themselves express little resentment or anxiety about taking the tests. Eight in ten say standardized tests ask fair questions. Only 5% say that they get so nervous before standardized tests that they can't take them, while 67% say they can handle feeling nervous, and another 28% say they don't get nervous at all.

Computers Get Good Marks

Reality Check shows a steady increase in computer access and use among public school students, and also that students are using computers for serious learning. The number of students who use computers every day or most days is rising steeply-from 40% four years ago to 61% today:

  • Sixty-three percent of students report that they use computers in school mostly to help them learn, rather than for typing or playing games, an increase of 21 percentage points from 1998.
  • Of teachers who use computers as a teaching tool, 74% say computers really help children learn. Just 25% say their usefulness is exaggerated.

Employers, Professors Remain Broadly Dissatisfied

As in past years, the survey indicates that employers and professors remain broadly dissatisfied with how well young people are prepared for work and college, and Reality Check continues to show jarring discrepancies between the judgments employers and professors make about student skills and the far more enthusiastic assessments offered by teachers, parents, and students themselves. For example, while high school teachers and parents voice broad confidence that graduating students have the skills needed to succeed on the job, just 41% of employers agree. However, this number has climbed from 27% in 1998.

Reality Check 2001 was prepared by Jean Johnson, Ann Duffett, Tony Foleno, Patrick Foley, and Steve Farkas. In October, Public Agenda released a related survey on parents' views about standards. Copies of the full text of both surveys can be accessed at no charge from Public Agenda Online ( The site also includes a companion guide with statistics, charts, and other information from Reality Check 2001.

Methodology: For Reality Check 2001, telephone interviews were conducted in November and December 2000 with national random samples of 601 K-12 public school teachers; 602 parents with children currently attending public school in grades K-12; 600 public school students in middle or high school; 251 employers who make hiring decisions for employees recently out of high school or college; and 254 college professors at two- and four-year colleges who taught freshmen or sophomores in the last two years. The margin of error for teachers, parents, and students is plus or minus 4 percentage points; for employers and college professors, plus or minus 6 percentage points.

Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization, located in New York City, is well respected for its influential public opinion polls and its balanced citizen education materials. Founded in 1975 by Cyrus R. Vance, the former U.S. Secretary of State, and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, its mission is to inform leaders about the public's views and to educate citizens about government policy.

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