Mandatory flunking is not the answer


A recent commentary on this blog called out Senate Democratic leaders for not supporting the governor’s pet education policies, specifically her push for mandatory third-grade flunking. The writer argues that opposition to the governor’s education agenda is driven by the “politics of personalities.”

Mandatory flunking does not lead to educational success, the senators who authored this commentary argue. (cc info)

f_a_r_e_w_e_l_l / Creative Commons

Mandatory flunking does not lead to educational success, the senators who authored this commentary argue. (photo cc info)

Aside from being too simplistic, that argument completely ignores critical facts that drive our opposition to mandatory flunking of students.

To begin, mandatory flunking takes away the rights of parents and teachers to make decisions about a child’s education. Parents and teachers know their students’ strengths and weaknesses. They know if the student is a poor test-taker but is an excellent learner and does well in class, excels in other subject areas besides reading, or has potential to overcome reading difficulties without being held back.

But under mandatory flunking, if a student doesn’t reach a specified score on a particular assessment test, the student will be flunked. Such critical decisions should not be made by bureaucrats at the Public Education Department, but by parents and teachers.

Another reason we are opposed to mandatory flunking is that the administration did not provide an estimate of potential costs of its proposed legislation, as indicated in the bill’s fiscal impact report. Nor did the administration give an estimate on the number of students that would be affected by this initiative.

It is difficult to support something that could cost taxpayers millions without producing measurable benefits.

A failed experiment

In 2014, Oklahoma ended its failed experiment in mandatory flunking. Why? Because it cost taxpayers millions of dollars, hurt students, and took away parents’ rights.

While the commentary’s writer dismisses the long-term impact flunking has on students, we do not. Our vision of helping the next generation does not include supporting legislation that puts students on a path to failure.

Studies have shown that:

  • academic achievement by those retained is poorer than those who were not.
  • the few achievement gains by students held back fade within two to three years after the grade repeated.
  • flunking is associated with increased behavioral problems and has a negative impact on all areas of academic achievement and social-emotional adjustment.
  • students who are flunked are more likely to drop out of school and have poorer educational and employment outcomes.

The commentary’s writer derides Senate Democrats’ concern for the effect flunking has on a student’s self-esteem. He cites Larry Summers, former U.S. treasury secretary and president of Harvard, as well as the son of two university professors, as saying that the major problem with K-12 education is the belief that “students need self-esteem to achieve, when in fact they need to achieve to build self-esteem.”


But it is difficult to achieve when the odds are stacked against some of our students.

Coming from what appears to be a privileged background, Mr. Summers might not relate to the challenges too many New Mexico students face in trying to achieve educational success. He probably doesn’t understand how difficult it is to learn to read when English isn’t your first language, you haven’t had breakfast, or you and your family are homeless. All students can succeed, but we can’t discount the challenges they face.

Thirty-three percent of children from birth to age five in New Mexico live in poverty, compared to 26 percent of U.S. children among the same age groups. Twenty-two percent of children in New Mexico are children of immigrants and a majority of these children are generally not fluent in English, which is an obstacle to proficiency in literacy.

Solutions that lead to success

It is our job as policy makers to come up with solutions that lead to educational success. Therefore, we support initiatives that identify low-performing students early on and provide effective interventions.

We understand the value of investing in early education through programs funded through the land grant permanent fund. We believe the countless studies demonstrating students are more likely to drop out if they are flunked. We are committed to breaking the cycle of poverty by developing a strong economy with well-paying jobs that are critical to our students’ future.

Mandatory flunking is not the answer.

Michael S. Sanchez, D-Belen, is New Mexico’s Senate majority leader. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, is the Senate majority whip. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, is the Senate majority caucus chair. Sen. Linda Lopez is an Albuquerque Democrat.

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