It’s no surprise that reading is a critical skill for young children to learn. In fact, by third grade, students “stop learning to read and start reading to learn.” This means it is imperative that students have appropriate reading skills before moving on to the fourth grade. A recent study by the Manhattan Institute analyzes one solution at least 16 states have implemented to help determine if students have the reading skills necessary to continue to the fourth grade, called test-based promotion policies.
The idea of a test-based promotion policy is that students take a standardized reading and/or math test and if they score above a minimum threshold, they are default-promoted to the next grade level. Proponents claim that this type of policy incentivizes students, parents, and schools to work towards stronger reading and math skills – higher scores – to avoid being retained, or “held back” a year. Opponents argue that this type of policy may be “overwhelming” to students and schools, and thus keep students from excelling.
The study analyzes reading and math scores at the state-level the year before and the year after a test-based promotion policy was implemented in both Florida and Arizona, as well as at the district level, by analyzing Hillsborough school district in Florida. It shows that these policies helped encourage students and schools to make improvements and that reading and math scores increased meaningfully the first year the policies were implemented.
The authors found that implementing a test-based promotion policy increased average scores and in turn, helped more students be promoted. They concluded that the argument which claims that a test-based promotion policy would harm student outcomes is groundless, and in fact, demonstrated the opposite. “Incentiviz[ing] better student outcomes by linking a consequence to the failure to meet a particular performance standard” led to substantial improvements for all students that were tested. Their “results show that the threat of retention improves student academic achievement, thus reducing the need for retention.”
While there are many arguments for and against standardized testing, studies like this one from the Manhattan Institute demonstrate that when implemented properly, tests and scoring requirements can be the motivation students and schools need to increase academic achievement. In addition, standardized tests are the benchmarks to inform students and schools how a student is performing. This is important because schools cannot help students improve academically if they don’t know what students’ current academic skills are. A test-based promotion policy is one way to help motivate students and schools to make significant academic progress with important skills that could otherwise keep a student from excelling.