Our schools regularly administer standardized tests to determine, among other things, the reading and mathematical abilities of each student. We then proceed, regardless of the results, to promote nearly every student to the next grade level. The justification given for these “social promotions” is that the students involved will be spared the humiliation of being “held back” and placed in a class with younger students. The grim reality is that, in most cases, the humiliation is only postponed. The students involved quickly find themselves in over their heads academically. Poor readers or students who fail to learn basic math skills eventually find themselves in classes with textbooks and other reading materials they cannot comprehend or attempting to solve complex math problems without the prerequisite skills. Attempting to do the work that is assigned becomes very frustrating for them. When they are tested over the material they are supposed to have learned, they fail. In some schools this problem is exacerbated by a lack of remedial help.
An aversion to ability grouping can also aggravate the problem of improper placement. Some educators object to ability grouping because they consider it to be a form of “tracking”. Ability grouping and tracking are not the same thing. The term “tracking” refers to the practice of assigning some students to “vocational” classes because they are deemed incapable of mastering the academic portion of the high school curriculum. Ability grouping does not require that students be “tracked” into different classes. We can offer the same curriculum to all students, but we must accept the fact that some students learn faster, and are capable of learning more, than others.
The work that students are assigned should be challenging, but it should be within their capabilities. If a standardized test shows that a student is reading “below grade level,” that student has been improperly promoted. They have been passed along, or awarded passing grades, even though they have demonstrably failed to master the material being tested. The end result of a series of improper promotions is clearly visible in many high school classrooms. Students who have been promoted beyond their ability to do the work expected of them are destined to fail. (In the meantime, their teachers also experience frustration, especially when they are blamed for the failure of these students to meet expected standards.)
The competitive atmosphere within our schools favors the academically talented. We reward successful students with good grades, places on the honor roll, scholarships, praise, etc. The school experience is considerably less enjoyable for slow learners. The net effect of grouping students by age, social promotions, and an aversion to ability grouping, leaves them competing for grades with students who learn faster (often, it seems, with less effort). Their attitude toward school and learning often changes dramatically as they begin to fall behind the rest of their classmates. By the time they reach middle school, many of these struggling students have resigned themselves to failure. In some cases they begin to actively resist learning. In other cases they put forth only a minimal effort. (By that point in their academic career, even students with solid academic abilities have often begun to focus on the external rewards offered by the system, rather than on learning as much as possible.)
Many of the problems plaguing our educational system are related to students who have been improperly promoted. The system does not work for them, and in turn, they become part of the problem. When students are not actively engaged in learning, they deal with their boredom, frustration, and sense of hopelessness in several ways. They may be chronically truant, sleep or daydream through classes, or engage in a variety of behaviors that distract, and/or interfere with, students who are trying to learn. Dealing with these disruptions is very frustrating for teachers and uses time and energy that could otherwise be devoted to instruction. Disruptive students can make it difficult for schools and teachers to maintain a climate conducive to learning. In classrooms with a significant number of non-motivated students, those students who are genuinely interested in learning can get lost in the shuffle. Teachers are so busy trying to motivate apathetic students, and control students who are not capable of controlling themselves, that the amount of time and energy they have left to devote to teaching is significantly reduced.
The most common educational model involves students learning from the teacher, but in an ideal educational environment, students also learn from each other, students learn on their own, and teachers learn from students. Even if non- motivated students are not actively disruptive, they can still detract from the educational environment within a classroom and a school. The apathy of students who sleep during classes, who don’t participate in classroom activities or discussions, who fail to complete class work or homework, or who simply don’t pay attention, can be contagious. Students who don’t ask questions or make comments during class discussions, or who fail to participate actively during cooperative learning activities, do not make a positive contribution to the educational process that goes on within a classroom. The excessive absences (often truancy) of non-motivated students can also have a negative effect on those students who are trying to learn. If teachers elect to cover material at a slower rate to help frequent non-attenders catch up or keep up, the progress of students who are present most of the time is hindered.
Setting students up for failure is guaranteed to damage or destroy their motivation to learn. Awarding high school diplomas to students who are functionally illiterate is not the answer. We need to make more effective use of the results of standardized tests to insure proper placement for students.