In large urban school districts, the rate is 50 percent or more. Ending so-called social promotion would mean retaining even higher percentages of students and holding some students back a second time.
Controlled studies show that repeating a grade does not improve achievement.
In some studies, such as a study in Baltimore, retained students show significant improvement during the repeat year itself, but this boost is not sustained in the years following retention.
Dr. James Grissom and I conducted a series of studies in Chicago, Austin and an unnamed suburban district in the Northeast. After controlling for factors known to affect dropout statistics - such as achievement, race and socioeconomic level - we found that dropout rates for retained students were 17 percent to 30 percent higher than for similar students who had not been retained.
What are the alternatives to grade retention?
Tutoring, after-school programs, summer school and intensive reading programs such as Reading Recovery all have positive effects on achievement. More than any other single problem, students who are failing in school need help with reading.
To his credit, Clinton claims to be against both social promotion and retention and hopes to provide funding for summer school for a tiny fraction of the students at risk of failing. Although these interventions will help, they still may not be sufficient to ensure that students meet grade-level standards.
My recommendation is that such students be "placed" in the next grade with an individualized education plan agreed to by parents and the school describing exactly what interventions will be provided to help each student meet academic standards.
Lorrie A. Shepard is an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.