CHICAGO — The eighth-graders at Louis J. Agassiz Elementary School on Chicago's North Side may not be familiar with the term "social promotion," but they're acutely aware of how the campaign to end it has affected them.
If these kids don't score above the cutoff point on standardized academic tests later this year, they'll be sent to summer school. If they don't do well there, they'll have to repeat eighth grade.
"When I first heard about this I was like 'Oh no, what am I going to do?' " remembers Nicole Roman. "I was a big basket of worries."
"If you don't pass you stay in the same grade and people will be making fun of you," frets Corrine Murphy. "I think I'll pass. I do good work." But, she adds, biting her lip, "I know some girls who didn't pass. They were really upset."
These worried young faces represent the human side of the accountability debate now gaining momentum across the United States. For many, a key element -ending social promotion, or the practice of advancing children from grade to grade whether or not they're academically ready - is the only way to restore accountability to the nation's public schools.
Nina Shokraii Reiss, education policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, calls a program like Chicago's "a very healthy movement." If students don't master the basics of one grade before they move on to the next, she says, "you're just slowing down the process of learning." In fact, she argues, students, teachers, parents, and future employers all benefit from a process that creates standards and restores meaning to the value of public education.
But others say that sizable numbers of children are not ready for that kind of tough love.
Chicago, which educates 433,000 students, is a leader among school systems hoping to wipe out social promotion. It set in motion a program requiring third-, sixth-, and eighth-graders who do poorly on standardized tests to attend summer school and repeat a grade if they don't pass. But social promotion has also been targeted nationally. In this year's State of the Union address, President Clinton called for tripling the amount of money spent for summer and after-school programs. Four states have passed laws this year tying promotion to test scores, and several others appear likely to do the same. Next year, Los Angeles will adopt a Chicago-like plan for its schools.
Chicago has moved 42 schools off a probation list that totaled 100 when Mayor Richard Daley took over the schools in 1995 and instituted a sweeping plan for school reform. But for some observers, holding kids back based on test scores is not part of Chicago's success story. "I would want there to be more support and smaller classes, more resources coming to the school before [taking this step]," says Julie Hines-Lyman, a computer teacher at Louis J. Agassiz, a 593-student, preK-8 school in a neighborhood where more than 70 percent of families live at or below the poverty level. Ms. Hines-Lyman also questions the wisdom of making decisions based solely on standardized tests.
Sharon Sullivan, a third-grade teacher at the school, is troubled by some of the same concerns. "Certain kids are good testers and others have trouble," she says. "Some really struggle with getting wound up beforehand."
The city's third-graders have borne the brunt of the program. Last year, 10,000 third-graders attended summer school but fewer than half of those were promoted. About 5,500 were held back, with a core group of nearly 1,000 repeating the grade a second time. Sixth- and eighth-graders did better, but almost 40 percent of that age group attending summer school were held back.
According to some studies, being held back increases the likelihood that the student will drop out of school by 20 to 30 percent. In Chicago, where about 80 percent of the students come from low-income households and large numbers learn English as a second language, some observers argue that a tough policy like this will only serve to further alienate struggling students.
Making a promotion decision based on the results of a single test is always a bad idea, says Suzanna Wichterle Ort, a research assistant at the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. And it's an especially bad idea when it comes to children as young as 8 and 9. "Kids at that age are so variegated," she points out. "Some start to read later and some earlier. It has nothing to do with intelligence."
But Gail Ward, principal at Louis J. Agassiz, says she sees clear benefits. "In general, I'm not a big fan of retention," she says. "But I've seen some good things from it. The kids now feel they've got a standard. There's a maturity that comes with it."
At Mrs. Ward's school, all the students required to attend summer school in 1996 made it to the next grade. In 1997, however, a number did not.
But despite their awareness that some kids don't make it, many Agassiz students insist that the stricter policy is good. "It's fun and exciting. It makes us think," says third-grader Joseph Pacheco. Classmate Erica Quinones says the tests have motivated her to work harder. Next summer, she says, "Instead of being in school, I could be having fun."