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April 2014 Brief: Volume 21, Number 10

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Performance-Based Promotion Is a Good Thing


by Deborah Thornton



Performance-based promotion is a good thing. Most successful employers use annual performance reviews, basing promotions and raises on demonstrated competency. Those employers who promote based on tenure or length of employment, irrespective of the work of the employee, are often unionized.


Way back in 2011 Governor Terry Branstad proposed ending academic social promotion in government schools by requiring all third-grade students who were not “proficient” in reading to repeat that grade.[1] The heavily unionized educational establishment and Democrat State Legislators funded by them reacted predictably with strong opposition. Objections included claims that being retained would emotionally and socially harm a child. Others thought that because a child could not read did not mean they were deficient academically. Still others argued that retaining students does not work – they still do not learn to read any better.


Research shows that 88 percent of high school dropouts were non-proficient readers in the third grade.[2] Those not reading proficiently by the third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, and low-income/minority students are eight times more likely to drop out. Promotion without skills does not lead to either workplace or educational success. Nevertheless the Governor’s proposal was rejected in favor of more palatable and nuanced reforms such as the teacher-leadership program and more funding.


Many states have implemented performance-based promotion in their government schools. Florida in particular has done so with excellent results. An analysis conducted by researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government found that Florida students repeating the third grade experienced “substantial short-term gains in both math and reading achievement.”[3] Over the next three years the students outperformed their same-age peers who were not retained. This initial, early grade retention also reduced the likelihood of retention at higher grade levels. The children basically went on to succeed. The Florida results are relevant because they have had third-grade testing promotion requirements since 2003, so there is long-term evidence. The first students affected by this requirement have now graduated from high school.


Importantly, the only students who are retained are those scoring at a level one out of five on the Florida achievement tests. A level one score means the student is “functionally illiterate”―not just a poor or below-average reader, but a child who is unable to read at the most basic level.[4] There are exemptions from retention based upon a high score on a different national, standardized reading test, on the teacher’s review and evaluation of a portfolio of demonstrated work, or other circumstances.[5] Retained students do not just repeat the grade, but must be provided with a summer reading program, have an improvement plan to address their specific needs, be assigned to a highly effective teacher, and receive intensive reading interventions, including being in a smaller class and having 90 minutes of daily reading instruction.[6] During their repeat of the third grade, a child may be promoted mid-year and rejoin their original class.


The research shows that many of those retained as third-graders, if instead passed on up the line, would have been retained in the higher grades. Later retention (in the sixth or eighth grades) actually has worse outcomes for the students, as many have fallen too far behind to catch up and as a result drop out.


The first year of the Florida performance-promotion policy about 14 percent of third-graders were held back, up from the previous 2.8 percent. By 2009-10, as teachers, parents, and students began to take the standard seriously, the number retained fell to less than 6 percent and is just under 8 percent (7.9) currently.[7] The exemption policy is also being used, as 18 percent of Florida third-graders are scoring at a level one but only 7.9 percent are actually being retained.


The test scores of students in Florida have increased dramatically over the last 10 years, from 218 to 227 in fourth-grade reading, and from 234 to 242 in math.[8] According to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Florida is the only state to have narrowed the low-income, minority achievement gap in both reading and math, at both the fourth and eighth-grade levels. Iowa has not. The achievement of not only low-income and minority children in Iowa but also that of white children remains stagnant. According to the Iowa Department of Education, “white students…are behind their white peers nationally across all test grade levels and subject areas.”[9] Fourth-grade reading has fallen five points since 1992 and now ranks 29th in the nation.


Meanwhile, the taxpayer money devoted to government education continues to climb by millions of dollars every year, with unceasing calls for even greater increases, yet no accountability to the parents and children. Who are the elected representatives doing this? The tenure-driven, union funded, Democrat Legislators. Maybe the place we really need to end social promotion is at the ballot box next fall.


[1] Mike Wiser, “Branstad’s Third Grader Retention Proposal Meets Resistance,” Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, February 14, 2012, <> accessed on March 17, 2014.
[2] Laurie Lee and Cari Miller, “Early Literacy and Florida’s Third Grade Policy,” Foundation for Excellence in Education, July 28, 2013, pp. 2-3, <> accessed on March 17, 2014.
[3] Guido Schwerdt and Martin R. West, “The Effects of Test-Based Retention on Student Outcomes over Time: Regression Discontinuity Evidence from Florida,” Harvard Kennedy School of Government, PPG 12-09, February 2013, p. 3, <> accessed on March 17, 2014.
[4] Lee and Miller, p. 4.
[5] Schwerdt and West, pp. 2-3.
[6] Lee and Miller, p. 8.
[7] Lee and Miller, p. 10.
[8] “Nation’s Report Card Shows Florida Student Progress,” Press Release, Florida Department of Education, November 7, 2013, <> accessed on March 17, 2014.
[9] Staci Hupp, “Iowa’s NAEP Results Show Some Gains, Need for Improvement,” Press Release, Iowa Department of Education, November 7, 2013, <> accessed on March 17, 2014.


Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact her at


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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