So I was responding to comment on this blog about student retention, and the person used the word "level" and it made me think of "leveling up" which is this process by which your fantasy character becomes more powerful as a result of the experience they gained. This video below describes the process of leveling up in World of Warcraft (an online fantasy role-playing game). I also remember reading about a professor who was planning on giving experience points for assignments rather than grades.
The thought I had here is, grades on assessments are the "experience points" our students gain, and their school grade (K to 12 in the US & Canadian systems) is their "level." Experience points become a measure of how much your fantasy characters have learned over time, and when you have learned enough, your character gets promoted. As your fantasy character gains levels, they gain abilities, much in the same way students gain skills & mastery of content.
I think this simplistic view of how school works is wrong for a couple of reasons. First, many assessment students do, particularly under assessment of learning systems (as opposed to assessment for learning) are not learning activities, so the idea of applying experience points breaks down here. They simply aren’t gaining experience from the activities in a nice smooth linear fashion. The second reason is that what students are capable of doing does not come in nice neat quanta as suggested by the metaphor of levels. Instead students are complex organisms which grow and develop over time. There may be times when they make leaps and bounds, but really their development comes in small incremental changes, rather than suddenly gaining new capabilities.
So if you buy my argument from my previous paragraph, now our concept of traditional grade levels becomes a bit questionable. We treat students like they are capable of more in 8th grade than they were in 7th grade. How many times have you heard yourself saying "now you are in 12th grade, you shouldn’t act like that!" Our current school system makes hardly any allowances for students who are at different points along the learning continuum. Instead we treat students almost exactly like my analogy.
Retaining students, or complaining of social promotion are just symptoms of a larger problem. We need to stop grouping students by their perceived "experience point level" and start grouping them by what they skills they have mastered.