ST. LOUIS — SCHOOLS across the country are coming under fire for failing to fail underachieving students. Their newest critic: President Clinton.
As a solution, Mr. Clinton wants states to require exams for students moving from elementary to middle school or middle to high school. Those who repeatedly fail would be held back. He also proposes withholding diplomas from students who don't pass high-school exit exams.
While critics agree that something has to be done, there is widespread opposition to more tests. They contend that schools already use too many standardized exams to determine students' abilities and that such tests can end up controlling the curriculum.
The issue has become one of the more contentious in American education as teachers and politicians wrestle with how to improve academic performance without undermining students' social development.
"To talk about doing away with social promotion is fine," says Christopher Cross, president of the Council for Basic Education in Washington, referring to the common practice of passing underachievers for social reasons. "But how you accomplish that is open to some interpretation."
Educators say evaluating a portfolio of student work, relying more on teachers to assess students, and establishing after-school programs to help those who fall behind would be more effective.
But Clinton's message to educators and state officials is to stop issuing "free passes" by advancing students to the next level regardless of academic achievement.
"If you want the standards movement to work, you have to have an assessment system that says, 'No more social promotions, no more free passes,' " Clinton told the 41 governors who gathered in Palisades, N.Y., for a recent education summit.
As the pressure on schools has increased in recent decades, many teachers have resorted to promoting struggling students who fall further and further behind as they advance through the grades. "Educators are less and less likely to confront parents with the truth that a student is not progressing," says Richard Peters, an assistant professor at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa.
With the backing of recent research, some educators are also convinced that it is more harmful than helpful to hold poorly performing students back.
States on the bandwagon
Even so, a growing number of states and districts are getting tougher on pupils. Five states - Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia - now require students to take "promotional exams" before moving to the next education level. Seventeen states require exit exams before issuing high school diplomas.
Some school districts are also working to eliminate automatic promotions for students. Until recently, Chicago had a written policy that "a student will not be retained or demoted more than once in kindergarten through Grade 8."
Last month, the Chicago School Board voted to create stricter promotion standards. Starting next year, all failing students from third grade up will have to attend summer school. If they fail summer school, they must repeat the grade.
Summer-school requirements and creating new promotional exams are expensive undertakings, however. "What you really have to do is reallocate some resources," says Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States.
Driving standards down
Others point out that standardized tests could end up backfiring by controlling the curriculum and driving down standards. And studies show that forcing students to repeat a grade does little to foster learning, leads to higher dropout rates, and damages self-esteem.
"The research is pretty comprehensive and thorough showing that holding kids back by itself doesn't help the learning process," says Monty Neill, associate director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) in Cambridge, Mass. "Holding kids back sends a very clear message that they are stupid and can't learn. And if a kid doesn't believe he or she can learn, he or she is not likely to learn very much."
Relying on standardized tests to determine academic achievement is inaccurate and dangerous, adds Pamela Zappardino, executive director of FairTest. Such serious matters as graduation and grade promotion should not hinge on "single-shot" tests, she says.
Professor Peters, who taught high school for nearly 25 years, agrees. "Historically we have relied on the teacher's wisdom," he says. "It is only the teacher that knows the students' abilities."
But not everyone balks at the idea. John Roden, president of the Yorktown, N.Y., teachers union, supports the idea of testing students before promoting. "Moving students on before they master the material only sets them up for failure," he says.
John Cole, a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, says social promotion is "education's dirty little secret." "It's a process where children who haven't learned the material are promoted from one grade to the next."