DEFINED: Social promotion is the practice of allowing students who have not met academic standards to pass on to the next grade with their peers instead of being held back to master the material. It focuses on a student's social, rather than academic, well-being.

AT ISSUE: The U.S. Education Department calls social promotion a "hidden problem" because most states are loath to admit it or keep track of it. Some indicators the department cites:

* National assessments of student performance indicate that more than a third of public school students score below the basic level of proficiency.

* The California State University system reported that in 1998, 54 percent of its incoming freshmen failed to pass an entry-level math placement test. Forty-seven percent failed an English placement test.

* According to the research organization Public Agenda, 63 percent of employers, 26 percent of teachers, 22 percent of students and 32 percent of parents do not believe a high school diploma guarantees that students have learned the "basics."

ASSESSMENT: While conceding that there is little evidence about how widespread social promotion is, the National Research Council estimates that at least 15 percent and perhaps more than 20 percent of students repeat a grade at some time in their childhood. It contends that retention seldom helps students.

STRATEGIES: According to a 1999 American Federation of Teachers report ("Making Standards Matter," which can be found at 13 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws seeking to end or limit social promotion. Some laws tie promotion directly to test scores in certain grades, requiring summer school or retention for students who do not pass; others make test scores one of several factors teachers should consider. Not all of the laws have gone into effect.

* Some U.S. cities also have tackled social promotion. In 1996, Chicago became the first major urban public school district to ban it. Students who have finished third, sixth and eighth grades are required to attend summer school and after-school classes and are held back if they cannot pass skills tests.

* In North Carolina, beginning next spring, fifth-graders will have to pass math and reading tests to be promoted. The state will spend more than $100 million on remedial education.

* In 1999, Texas passed a law sponsored by Gov. George W. Bush ending social promotion. Texas already was one of more than 20 states that have a high school graduation test requirement; its exam recently survived a highly publicized court challenge on behalf of minority students.

* Last year, the Florida legislature passed a bill to end social promotion of fourth-graders who do not pass the state reading test.

NOT SO FAST: Some jurisdictions that have passed social promotions laws and regulations are finding them difficult to implement.

* The Delaware General Assembly, which passed a law prohibiting social promotion in 1998, has delayed when it would take effect, under pressure from concerned parents after statewide tests revealed many students would not meet the standards.

* In Florida, the Education Department estimates that 15 percent of fourth-graders would fail the state's test this year.

* In Chicago, the U.S. Department of Education is investigating parental complaints that the Iowa Test of Basic Skills--used to help determine promotion--is biased against minorities.

EARLY RESULTS: A study released in December revealed that Chicago's program has had little success so far in improving the performance of students who repeat grades, though the threat of retention seemed to have an impact on sixth- and eighth-graders.

Sources: U.S. Department of Education; American Federation of Teachers; news services and news reports