WACO, TEXAS — For years, the Waco school system has had a problem at graduation time. Following the unspoken, and illegal, policy of social promotion, teachers were inflating the grades of poorly performing students and passing them on to the next grade.
This year, for the first time, Waco school officials decided to crack down. They required children from third through eighth grade to pass a state achievement test in order to advance, and the results were grim: More than 20 percent of the student body failed.
Now Waco school officials are facing a parental revolt and a handful of lawsuits. They are also having trouble finding enough qualified teachers to handle the largest summer school program in city history to deal with students held back.
"I think it's totally unacceptable to have that percentage of students not having mastered the correct level of curriculum," says Rosanne Stripling, Waco's school superintendent. For years, she adds, Waco was far below the state average in achievement scores and nothing seemed to boost the numbers. "But when we established this policy, we really got some folks attention."
The problem of social promotion is faced by nearly every school district in the country, and while it has few defenders in principle, it is difficult to eradicate in practice. Some educators and parents argue that holding students back to repeat a year only ends up discouraging students and encouraging them to drop out. Others say schools must return to the tough standards of yesteryear, when the only way to advance was to know the material.
"The most important effect of getting tough is that in the students' minds, they now know what they need to know," says Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States, a Denver think tank. "We should be more proactive - tell students, 'This is what we expect. We're not going to allow you to fail, period.' "
The common-sense appeal of ending social promotion also makes good politics. During a campaign visit, Gov. George W. Bush (R) said Waco was doing exactly what he envisions of Texas schools, and he unveiled plans for the next legislative session to require all Texas students to pass the state achievement test to advance to the next grade.
"The practice of passing students to the next grade without having grasped the basic building blocks of knowledge subjects those students to failure," says Linda Edwards, Governor Bush's spokeswoman on education issues.
Of course, Waco has made provisions for handling the excess number of students piling into this year's summer school, and plans to spend $1 million to get as many of them as possible to pass to the next grade. That said, schools officials only expect one-quarter of the students to pass the test on the second try.
For Lester Gibson, however, using achievement tests to halt social promotion is misguided and illegal. He is filing one of a handful of lawsuits against the district to stop it. The problem, he says, is that the state achievement test - the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) - was intended to assess whether schools were teaching the proper curriculum. Test results were never meant to measure individual achievement, he says, and releasing confidential scores to parents and teachers violates state law.
"It's a public accountability measure, and TAAS is the instrument that measures whether the 1,044 school districts in the great state of Texas are doing their job and teaching the skills," says Mr. Gibson, who likes to illustrate his points by writing on a chalkboard in his office. In his view, teachers who give out inflated grades should be fired, and school officials who know about social promotion are ultimately culpable.
"If they were teaching the required curriculum and skills, then any kid could pass the test," he says, noting that many schools in Waco's poorer neighborhoods still don't have enough textbooks for students to take home. "Who is accountable for that?"
Out on the streets of Waco, social promotion is the biggest topic in town. Few people think children should be passed to the next grade without having basic math and reading skills, but some worry about a single test having so much importance. "It's unfair to a kid, after he's worked so hard for a year, to fail him just because of one test," says T.J. Haliburton, assistant sales manager at The Hub, a downtown haberdashery.
His co-worker, Allen Dixon, agrees that the pressure of a pass-or-fail test is harmful. "My son did pretty well," he says. "He was pretty happy about it, but some of his friends weren't happy at all."
Across the street, a hulking but affable juvenile-detention officer named James says Waco school officials should modify their policy to be tougher on the older kids and more lenient on the younger ones. But overall, he agrees with Waco's tougher stand. "Life is a level," he says, "and if you're not able to pass a test, you should be held back."