Pushing Kids Along Is Prudent but Problematic

Each of these matters requires a discrete decision, but together they constitute a broader issue. Unless state officials steadfastly require students to make up all of these courses and pass all of these tests, several graduating classes will not have the academic records that have been deemed essential for high-school graduation.

The consequences of social promotion also stretch back to lower grades. Most, if not all, states will make use of recent federal flexibility and cancel this spring’s reading and math assessments for elementary and middle-school students. Presumably, administrators will also suspend district and school report cards, which are largely based on results from those tests. So for some time, the annual state determinations of school quality will be halted.

Even if states take these sensible actions, these younger students will have learned less than state standards require—unless their districts were miraculously adept at shifting to online learning. Some districts, though, have struggled mightily. For instance, Fairfax County Public Schools, one of the nation’s largest districts, has had, according to The Washington Post, a “disastrous debut of online learning.” It took four weeks to roll out and then suffered two failed attempts, ultimately leading to a public dispute with the district’s platform provider and the departure of the district’s technology chief.

A new study by Nat Malkus, Cody Christensen, and Lexi West of the American Enterprise Institute found that by early April, only 71 percent of schools were in districts with some type of remote instructional practices. And there is wide variation in the types of instruction available and whether it is mandatory. For example, about 60 percent of schools are in districts making worksheets and packets available, but in more than 40 percent of these cases, the districts expressed no clear requirement that students participate. Given these statistics, it seems inevitable that many schools will be passing students along to the next grade despite their significantly reduced opportunity to learn, making for arguably the largest social-promotion initiative of the accountability era.

The mechanics and consequences of alternative plans leave educators little choice. At this point, 36 states and Washington, D.C., have closed schools for the remainder for the year, so a Herculean in-school remediation effort prior to summer break would be impossible. If an elementary school holds back all of this year’s students, it would suddenly be overcrowded in the fall—serving this year’s cohort plus the next group of kindergarteners. A massive, district-run summer-school program is conceivable, but the costs may be all but prohibitive; with state and local tax revenues collapsing, districts would need to somehow find the funds to pay for the teachers, administrators, bus drivers, materials, and more for unplanned weeks or months of schooling.