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.

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."

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.

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.

State adjustments

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.

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