Mira Mesa High School cheerleaders welcome students back to class. Photo by Chris Stone
Mira Mesa High School cheerleaders welcome students back to class. Photo by Chris Stone

Some may call it grading for equity and some call it lowering the bar, but no matter how you look at it socially promoting high school seniors and releasing them into the job market without basic reading, writing and math skills will do more harm than good.

According to the San Diego Council on Literacy, 560,000 adults in the county read at a fourth grade level or less. These individuals have a harder time finding employment and suffer even more financially. Adding to this number by socially promoting seniors is ill advised.

When the San Diego Unified School District predicted a 95% high school graduation rate this year, it raised eyebrows. The increase constitutes a six-percentage-point jump above last year’s rate even though research suggests that some students lost the equivalent of a full school year’s worth of academic gains due to distance learning and school shutdowns. 

Social promotion, or the act of passing students along from grade to grade even if the student has not satisfied academic requirements, has a long history. In 1997 then President Bill Clinton called on all public schools to end the social promotion of poorly performing students, but the practice remains 25 years later.

San Diego Unified appears to be socially promoting seniors this year with the help of Assembly Bill 104, which gives parents or guardians of high school students the option to replace their letter grades with a “pass” or “no pass” designation on their transcript.

The change of grade on a student’s transcript cannot negatively impact their GPA. When an “F” is converted to a “No Pass,” the zero points are no longer factored into the GPA. Changing a “D” or even a “C” letter grade to a “Pass” may actually increase a student’s GPA. And that change could be the difference between graduating and not graduating.

Instead of socially promoting students, school districts need to extend the school year for those who are still struggling with learning loss, or even extend the school day. Extending the school year by a few days is not enough; rather it should be uninterrupted, full-time instruction just as they received during the traditional school year that continues into the summer.

Having an extended school year is not a new concept. On average, students in San Diego receive about 180 days of instructional time, but that may not be enough especially for struggling students. Many countries have much longer school years.

In most of Australia, the primary and secondary school year lasts about 200 days. In Japan, the minimum number of school days in a year is 210. And in China, the average length of the secondary school year is 245 days

Promoting unprepared students into the workforce will do little to increase their achievement or life chances. On the other hand, the practice of having students repeat a grade often has negative educational consequences, such as increasing their chances of dropping out of school. Therefore, extending the school year or the school day for those students who require additional instructional time makes sense.

Without providing students with additional instructional hours educators are setting them up for failure—because they will not be able to compete for jobs in a global market with students who spend much more time in the classroom.

San Diego Unified’s mission statement reads: “All San Diego students will graduate with the skills, motivation, curiosity and resilience to succeed in their choice of college and career in order to lead and participate in the society of tomorrow.”  Socially promoting seniors under the guise of a pass/no pass system goes against the district’s mission statement.

No high school senior should be denied graduation because of poor decisions made by government bureaucrats and politicians; they should be given the opportunity to succeed. Instead of a band-aid approaches to addressing learning loss, real solutions must be implemented such as extending the school year or additional academic instruction at alternative schools developed specifically to address the needs of low-performing students.

It is incumbent for educational leaders to insure that graduating seniors be provided with continuing education in public schools so they can develop the academic skills needed to compete in today’s job market. Socially promoting students without a safety net in place is simply wrong.

Mark Powell is president of Parents For Quality Education and a former elected member of the San Diego County Board of Education.