California's big test: holding students back
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Yet many factors contribute to student performance - income, absenteeism, lack of parental support, poor nutrition. Identifying such problems and coming up with programs to solve them is expensive - as much as $1,300 per student, analysts say. But that figure is far less, they contend, than the estimated $4,000 per student it costs to repeat a grade.Skip to next paragraph
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Although no national statistics have been collected on grade retention, Shepard estimates that 5 to 7 percent of public school children - about 2 children in every classroom of 30 - are already retained in the US annually.
But she and others argue that annual statistics don't accurately reflect the full impact of holding students back. The 6 percent average annual rate, if calculated cumulatively, means that by ninth grade, approximately half of all students in the US have flunked at least one grade. "This means that contrary to public perceptions, current grade failure rates are as high as they were in the 19th century, before social promotion," says Shepard.
Retention does have its advocates. Clinton and other analysts point to the success of the Chicago Unified School District. Under a three-year-old program there, children in Grades 3, 6, 8, and 9 must pass their classes, score well on standardized tests, or successfully complete a summer-school program. The city last year graduated the most eighth-graders to high school ever - 4,700 of whom took the summer program.
"We are getting good results, but also finding it doesn't work for everyone," says Tom Reece, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. About 3,000 kids were either held back or moved into a special transition program. "The key is convincing both schools and parents that school performance means something, and they have to take it seriously," he says.
States moving to end social promotion have their work cut out for them, too. Faced with opposition, Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) has softened his rhetoric on social promotion since beginning a groundbreaking campaign a year ago.
In California, school districts are working on criteria to assess whether a child should be promoted. They're running into a multitude of problems - from how to equalize standards from district to district to who pays for intervention programs for those who don't make it.
"The good thing about this is that if districts write their promotion criteria thoughtfully, we could wind up flagging kids earlier for prevention," says Lisle Staley, director of assessment for the Santa Barbara School District. "The hard part is coming up with objective and consistent ways to measure kids."
Los Angeles as a case study
Here in Los Angeles, sheer size and complexity make new district decisions a case study for others across the country. More than half the district's elementary and middle school pupils - about 150,000 - are in danger of being held back for insufficient skills in reading and math. One reason they fall behind is that more than 82 languages are spoken. Another is a paucity of funding.
The city is moving to implement a new annual student evaluation a full year before other state districts. Assessments will include a content-based state-standardized test, teacher evaluations, and a performance-based test as yet developed.
Bolstered by an improved state economy with some surpluses earmarked for education, the Los Angeles Unified District plans to spend $140 million on facilities and teacher training this year and a possible $2 billion within a few years. The money will be spent on tutoring, summer school, and instructing teachers on evaluating student readiness. "This is not about kids repeating a grade, but rather intervening to save kids at risk," says Steve Blazak of the United Teachers of Los Angeles.