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The cost of holding students back

California undertakes America's biggest ban on social promotion, and the preparation has been problematic.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 2000



CANOGA PARK, CALIF.

The deadline is looming for California to end social promotion, and signs of desperation are showing.

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Across the United States, dozens of states have passed some form of law governing the practice of promoting students to the next grade regardless of progress. But the move to ban social promotion faces its sternest test here, where schools are chronically overcrowded and many students have a limited command of English.

Cynthia Augustine knows that firsthand. To create an irresistible incentive for her students, the middle-school principal is putting her golden-haired head on the line.

"If they raise their statewide test scores by 5 percent in every subject, I'll take a razor and go bald," says the 25-year veteran. "I'll become Telly Savalas in lipstick."

The bold ploy is but one example of the lengths that teachers are going to in order to avoid the calamity of holding back thousands of students this fall. How California meets these challenges, experts say, will lay out a map for schools nationwide.

"The sheer size and challenge of diversity here will be a good window into what's ahead for others," says Michael Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

Nowhere are the challenges of social promotion more daunting than in Los Angeles, where officials were originally faced with the prospect of holding back 10,000 students. While promotion requirements have been eased to make sure the system doesn't grind to a halt, administrators say the strain still might be too great, forcing the cash-strapped district to hire more teachers and build more classes.

Chicago vs. L.A.

Recently, the model for success has been Chicago, where early testing has helped officials identify which students need to be helped along by extra mid-year programs. In all, 31 states have passed laws on social promotion, usually based on a combination of grades, teacher assessment, and standardized testing.

For Los Angeles Unified School District, the standard started high: Students had to pass English, history, math, and science, and score above the 36th percentile in statewide tests.

"Then they crunched the numbers" and came up with the estimate of 10,000 students, says Ms. Augustine. "Now we're down to a pass or fail in English alone."

Even with only one standard, she adds that mid-year assessments show 65 of her students at risk of having to repeat eighth grade. Using tutors and after-school instruction, though, she hopes to cut that number.

"We don't have the space to put them if we hold them back, and we don't have the teachers to teach them," says Augustine.

Up and down the state, the problems are the same - and some others exist, too.

There are major concerns that students held back will just give up and leave school. Also, different districts use different assessments, which creates chaos when students move around the state.

"Everything is going to hit the fan one way or another," says Bill Baker, chief economist for the Visalia School District. "We are looking at going into double sessions [two full school days per day], starting earlier and going later. We are going to try and beat the problem before it happens. But you can only do that for a limited time."

The lesson here and elsewhere, say administrators, is twofold. In the short term, a more gradual transition would be wiser. Long term, more attention needs to be paid to how many students are at risk, and what can be done to help them earlier.

"The state has asked us to identify a child at the end of second grade who is at risk, but that child has already been in the system for three years," says Lisle Staley, director of assessment for the Santa Barbara School District. "We need to identify that child in kindergarten."

Other states are finding themselves in a similar bind.

"School districts all over the country are experiencing the same dilemma as California, causing them to think, 'Maybe we shouldn't have tried this,' " says Katy Haycock, director of Education Trust in Washington. "There is a great tension between taking all the new standards seriously ... and having to figure out how to get them up to snuff once they are held back. If we hold them back and don't do anything differently, we haven't learned anything."

Assess, assess, assess

Ms. Haycock and others say districts that have had the most success include Corpus Christi, Texas, and Lancaster, Pa., which have had the money and foresight to continually assess students throughout the year.

California has not yet freed up additional funding for such intermittent testing, choosing instead to put recent revenue windfalls into smaller class sizes - which has exacerbated its teacher and schoolroom shortages.

"Social promotion is a concept that is difficult to argue against, but this state has jumped into it ill-prepared," says Wayne Johnson, president of the California Teachers Association. "This program cannot be accomplished [here] without long-range planning and far slower integration of the system."

"You can't correct several years of problems for a student in a half year of remediation," he says.

Many observers say other factors have exacerbated problems. One is the growth of school unions.

"The empowerment of teachers unions has sheltered mediocre teachers who are allowed to continue because they are protected by due process," says Augustine. "If you are going to make people accountable, you have to include the teachers."

A second missing part of the equation, say others, is parental involvement.

"Parents have to be teachers at home to make this all work," says Karen Saltzman, whose daughter Lea attends Columbus Middle School. "Retention is not a bad idea, but we are starting too late."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society