Policy Brief: Local Promotion Standards

Click to download a PDF

Click to download a PDF

Promotion standards, or the requirements students must meet in order to move on to the next grade level, have recently been a significant topic of discussion in the Houston Independent School District (HISD). Given that the Board of Education and the district’s senior administration are seeking to overhaul these promotion standards in 2017 and in recognition of the fact that the current standards were put in place prior any sitting trustee’s tenure on the board, HISD Parent Advocates provides this brief to summarize the policy’s origin, history, and effectiveness as well as propose best practices and guiding principles that parents believe trustees should include in the design of the district’s new standards. 

Current Policy

Promotion standards in HISD are governed by both state law (EIE Legal) and district policy (EIE Local). Highlights of state law governing promotions include the requirement that fifth and eighth graders must pass both the reading and math STAAR test in order to be automatically promoted and that they must be given three opportunities to do so. 

Here is the heart of HISD’s local promotion policy:

“In addition to the factors in law that must be considered for promotion, mastery shall be determined as follows:

  1. Course assignments and unit evaluations aligned to District curricular standards shall be used to determine student grades in a subject. An average of 70 or higher shall be considered a passing grade and shall signify mastery of the skills necessary for success at the next level.
  2. Students shall:
    1. At grades 1 and 2, meet the District’s passing standards on the District-administered criterion-referenced assessment
    2. At grades 3 through 8, meet the state’s passing standards on the state-administered criterion-referenced assessment in reading and mathematics.”

In other words, in Houston ISD in grades 3-8, you must pass both the STAAR and your classes in order to be promoted to the next grade. 


In 1983, A Nation at Risk was published. It was the report of President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. According to Viadero, as cited by Owings and Kaplan (2001): 

“In 1983 the publication of A Nation at Risk galvanized public sentiment against some of the counter-intuitive practices in education, social promotion being the chief one. Social promotion became a political touchstone for presidential candidates. By 1995, anti-social-promotion platforms had won bipartisan support.”

By the 1990s, social promotion, or the practice of promoting students despite failure to demonstrate mastery of curriculum, had become a topic of concern for many Texans. The 75th Texas Legislature in 1997 discussed adopting requirements for students to demonstrate academic achievement, in addition to meeting attendance standards in order to be promoted. Ultimately, the bill did not pass. But the idea did not die. In late 1997, George Bush began his campaign against Gary Mauro in the race for governor. In this race, Bush laid out an ambitious plan to require students to pass the (then TAAS) test at third, fifth and eighth grades in order to be promoted to the next grade. Bush would be elected in November 1998 and the Texas Legislature would go on to pass his education plan in the 76th legislative session. This debate was occurring at the state level at the same time Houston ISD began to contemplate putting in place a new promotion standards policy. 

In the spring of 1998, years prior to statewide standards going into effect, Superintendent Rod Paige brought asked the HISD Board of Education to approve the local standardized test promotion standard. According to the Houston Chronicle (1998), it was a significant departure from policies adopted previously on this topic, including a longstanding policy that said that students could be retained no more than two times in their K-12 careers—once in elementary school and once in secondary. This policy was brought to the HISD Board when district leaders saw the number of ninth grade students balloon, and district leadership believed this was because students were being socially promoted to ninth grade, then failing and remaining stuck there. Social promotion was decried as “immoral.” 

The promotion standards adopted by the board were designed to be more comprehensive and rigorous than the state’s requirements and implemented before statewide requirements were finalized. The criteria approved at that time addressed three criteria: course grades, criterion-referenced test results (TAAS) and norm-referenced test results (Stanford). The policy was approved unanimously after two readings, although several education leaders in the Houston area expressed concern about the proposal and at least two trustees emphasized the need for an increase in interventions. 

As stated previously, in the spring of 1999 the 76th Texas Legislature passed Governor Bush’s ambitious education plan, deemed the “Student Success Initiative.” It required students in grade 3 to pass the state assessment in reading in order to be promoted, and students in grades 5 and 8 to pass the state assessment in reading and math in order to be promoted. It also required that districts give students at these specific grade levels three chances to pass the test. 

In the 81st Texas Legislature (2009), third grade was removed from the Student Success Initiative. In the fall of 2010, there was discussion by HISD administration about rolling back the promotion standards adopted in 1998. Carla Stevens, Assistant Superintendent of Research, is quoted in the Houston Chronicle (Mellon, 2010) as saying “tougher promotion standards have not pushed student performance above other districts that follow state guidelines.” Changes were made to HISD’s promotion policy in the following year, and the biggest change was that the requirement to perform on grade level on a norm-referenced assessment (Stanford) was removed. The requirement to pass the state assessment in grades 3-8 remained, even though administrators had publicly expressed doubts about whether the policy was working as intended. 

The policy has not been substantially changed since 2012, although it has been suspended at least twice. The first was when the new State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) was being rolled out in 2011. The second was during the 2015-2016 school year when the State pushed back the administration dates of the STAAR and did not return the bulk of the scores until mid-June. 


So now we are left to ask Ms. Stevens’ question again: “Is this policy working as intended?” 

We believe the answer is no, and here are the reasons why:

1) According to the Intercultural Research Development Association (Johnson): “Research indicates that early in-grade retention has a negative impact on students’ academic success, and a negative impact on psychological and behavioral engagement once they reach middle school. Unless positive and valuing measures are utilized in the following year, students who are retained often suffer from low self-esteem and feel they are being punished, or worse humiliated (McCollum, et al., 1999; West 2012). What was meant to be a positive intervention for success to improve their academic performance turns into a traumatic pre-adolescence experience."

2) This policy punishes students for adult mistakes. If a child is not succeeding at school, then school personnel must change their instruction to reach the child and ascertain the reason the child is not learning. A large component to early intervention is screening for disabilities which must be readily accessible to parents and teachers. If a child is not learning, it is the school’s responsibility to adapt.

3) As discussed at recent board meetings, because the Texas Education Agency has pushed back the dates of the administration of the STAAR to later in the year, there is no feasible way to meet state requirements for Grade Placement Committees and Accelerated Instruction when scores for these grades (3,4,6 and 7) are not returned until mid-June. With the new administration dates, this policy becomes impractical to implement, which is why the Board of Trustees voted to suspend it last school year. The administration dates are permanently moved, and so this logistical problem is a permanent and serious one. 

4) No other school district in Texas has a similar promotion standard. After two decades, If these standards were successful at driving achievement, wouldn’t other districts have adopted the same practice? No other districts have, and in fact, many have taken the opposite tactic of minimizing the emphasis they put on the state assessment. Furthermore, the state recognized how bad it was to retain third graders on the basis of a test and removed third grade from the Student Success Initiative in 2009.

5) This policy is costly. Educating a child for an extra year is expensive. According to the Intercultural Development Research Association (Solis & Romero), “In addition to the impact holding children back has on the lives of the students, retaining a student is a costly educational intervention. The cumulative costs of retaining 546,213 pupils over four years (from 1993-94 to 1996-97) totaled a staggering $2.48 billion in expenditures (TEA, 1998).”

6) Finally, this policy is not working as designed because when you look at the numbers, you see that last year HISD promoted 96% of its “non-proficient” fifth graders and 97% of “non-proficient” eighth graders. In other words, even after students fail the test, they still get promoted because the people closest to the child understand what a detrimental impact retention can have on a child. Regardless, the district adds the stress of retention on students, parents and teachers,

This policy takes power away from the people who are closest to the child: the parent, the teacher, and the principal, and gives it to the Board of Trustees and the Texas Education Agency to determine if one test outweighs an entire years’ worth of classwork. Decisions about whether a child is promoted or retained should be individualized and made by those that personally know students and their abilities.

Future Design Recommendation

We believe it is time for HISD to adopt a promotion standards policy that is comprehensive and proactive. The choice to retain a children or socially promote them is a bad choice — neither of which is a successful outcome. Promotion policy and intervention policy cannot be disconnected, and interventions need resources to be timely and effective. 

We believe the following should be included in a future comprehensive promotion policy:

  • Removal of criterion-referenced tests from promotion requirements;
  • Inclusion of language requiring intervention early in the school year for students that are struggling, preferably including a timeline;
  • Inclusion of screening of child for disability in the second half of the year if interventions are not successful;
  • Language that promotes keeping student’s emotional health at the forefront of decision making about grade placement.

We believe these policy attributes can have long-lasting, powerful effect on HISD students and the district’s climate and culture. 

Example District Policies

Click to download full SBISD policy

Click to download full SBISD policy

In reviewing dozens of local promotion standards from districts around the state, we found Spring Branch ISD to particularly positive. SBISD’s policy stands out due to a number of factors including:

  • recognizing a promotion decision based on a matrix of information, 
  • discrete differentiation in standards for Kindergarten, Grades 1-5, Grades 6-8 and Grades 9-12,
  • articulating parent involvement in accelerated instruction and retention decisions,
  • contemplating age-appropriateness of campus placement separate from grade placement,
  • provision of superintendent oversight of annual retention trends by campus, and 
  • integration of a retention reduction plan.

We have included a copy of SBISD’s promotion standards policy appended to the end of this brief. We also commend the policies of Arlington ISD and Northside ISD. Though not as comprehensive, those districts stand as examples of the many districts around the state with a student/teacher/parent-centered approach to promotion and retention policies. 


Owings & Kaplan. (2001). “Alternatives to Retention and Social Promotion”. Retrieved from http://ww2.odu.edu/~wowings/FB481-Owings-Kaplan.pdf
Bryant, S. (1998 April 17). HISD tentatively approves 3 new criteria for students. Houston Chronicle.
Mellon, E. (2010 November 18). Grier skeptical of idea of easing HISD promotion standards. Houston Chronicle. 
Stutz, Terrence. (2010 November 29). Social Promotion Law Has Little Impact: 8th Graders Fail At Same Rates As Before the Rule. Houston Chronicle.
Johnson, Paula. In-Grade Retention in the Early Years: What’s Holding Children Back? Retrieved from: http://www.idra.org/resource-center/grade-retention-early-years-whats-holding-children-back/
Solis, A. & Romero, A.A. The Promise and Perils of the Texas School Success Initiative. Retrieved from: http://www.idra.org/resource-center/the-promise-and-perils-of-the-texas-school-success-initiative/