At Harvard College, founded 1636, social promotion was the rule. Students were admitted in groups (classes) and they graduated with their classes. “Deficiencies” in learning were dealt with by private tutoring and if the tutor -- paid directly by the student -- said you passed, you did. You were not expected to be a scholar; but, a “gentleman.” Universities today try to maintain this tradition since it makes for “classmates” who are more reliable donors.
According to Sheena Dooley in the Des Moines Register of October 18, 2010, local middle school principals are considering, pondering, even, adopting a proposal to end social promotion, that is, the practice of moving students along from grade to grade regardless of their academic performance.
For those who think that academic performance is the end-all and be-all of school, this must be a welcome prospect. Such adults have usually forgotten how very individual kids can be. But if academic performance is so important, why aren’t kids admitted to school initially, whether kindergarten or first grade, or in later grades, on the basis of scientifically established academic predictors?
They aren’t usually: not in public school, seldom elsewhere. They are put in grade on the basis of their age. (Sometimes on the basis of their size.) Why? Because its suits the convenience, not to mention the illusions and the pocketbooks, of parents, teachers, administrators, board members, and general public.
Here we meet the great machine: Politics, that is, competing public and private demands, which constrain state and local budgeting. Budgeting constrains school governance decisions. School governance constrains curriculum and resources. Curriculum and resources constrain academic demands. No constraints, so long as they are not physically or behaviorally very obvious, are considered if they come from the kids.
Many kids are misplaced by age. Astrology would do a better sorting: after all there are twelve signs of the Zodiac, but usually only two “admissions periods” for schools.
Age placement creates many false positives, that is, kids who are assumed to be academically prepared for “grade level work” but who are most likely not. The so-called “failure of the public schools” is most likely to be the consequence of traditionally promiscuous admissions practices as anything else.
To examine these issues further, see Classification Error in Evaluation Practice:
the impact of the "false positive" on educational practice and policy