California's big test: holding students back
While pencil sharpeners whir and students shuffle from recess to writing, second-grade teacher Marlene McLemore assesses the future of schooling here in the nation's second-largest district - and sees more work.Skip to next paragraph
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More work identifying "problem" kids early. More work with parents. More summer school. The reason: The district plans next year to begin requiring students to prove proficiency in schoolwork before graduating to the next grade. By one estimate, that could mean as many as 150,000 students being held back in elementary and secondary schools alone.
"This is going to mean more family and parental support or interventions, from tutoring to summer school," says Ms. McLemore.
With a new buzzword and a fresh push from the White House, an intense debate on school accountability is moving into classrooms across the country in a sharpening dialogue over education.
"Social promotion" - the practice of promoting students to the next grade regardless of their academic progress - is the latest controversy in an enduring struggle to address the problem of failing students.
It is presenting teachers, parents, and administrators with a dilemma as old as the first report card: When students fail, is it better to have them repeat the school year or promote them to the next grade to keep them with their age group?
Introducing a five-point education program his administration will offer by spring, President Clinton told Americans in his State of the Union address that "all schools must end social promotion."
He followed with a budget request for triple the funds for summer school and after-school programs - currently budgeted at $200 million.
While many academics and educators laud the goals of the program, administrators around the country are trying to assess what it will mean for them - and caution against a one-size-fits-all approach to solving education problems.
So far, six states have passed various laws tying grade promotion to test scores or objective measures of achievement (Ohio, California, Louisiana, Delaware, South Carolina, Wisconsin) and many more are moving in that direction.
But, like McLemore, some academics worry that taking such dead aim at social promotion creates a separate, perhaps more devastating problem: holding students back, known as retention.
"A summary of all the research done in recent years shows there is no benefit to making kids repeat a grade, that it doesn't improve achievement," says Lorrie Shepard, professor of education at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Summing up a recent survey of 63 studies done in several states, Ms. Shepard says retained children actually perform more poorly on average when they go on to the next grade.
Problems of retention
Besides inflicting emotional and other problems that many children struggle to overcome, students who repeated a year were shown in some studies to be 20 to 30 percent more likely to drop out of school. Students who repeat two grades, she says, "have a probability of dropping out of nearly 100 percent."
Such findings have led to a call from some corners to focus on a middle ground. That means identifying at-risk students before they are in danger, and giving them help through such things as tutoring, after-school programs, and summer school.
"Retention is good for some and poisonous for others, so it is important to not adopt a wholesale approach," says Jim Grant, author of "The Retention Promotion Checklist Book."