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'Promotion Gates' Are Raising Both Standards and Concerns

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As schools open across the country this month, thousands of students--from kindergarten through grade 12--will be repeating grades because they failed to meet the tougher promotion standards introduced by many school systems and some states in the past few years.

In New York City, 4,000 4th and 7th graders will be in the same grade for the third straight year because they have failed to meet a standardized test cut-off score. Nearly one in five of Atlanta's 5,000 1st graders were not advanced last June because they failed to meet the school system's two-year-old reading and mathematics standards.

Under public pressure to demonstrate that students are actually learning in school, many school systems have tightened academic requirements, in many cases mandating that students pass a basic-skills test before they are handed a diploma.

Recently, some systems have gone further, abandoning the common practice of advancing students from one grade to the next simply on the basis of age, and are now tying promotion to test scores or other quantifiable criteria.

This growing use of "promotion gates"--as the policy is often called--has attracted widespread support among those who are demanding more accountability from the nation's schools. And some educators say that more students--especially those in the elementary grades--are getting a better grounding in basic reading and mathematics in school systems that have adopted the new policy.

But as the use of promotion gates becomes more widespread, outside observers, as well as those educators who administer promotion-assessment policies, are beginning to recognize that the concept poses difficult dilemmas.

"Moving away from social promotion is a good thing," said Richard O. White, executive director of elementary and secondary instruction in Dade County, Fla., and one of seven officials from districts where promotion gates are used who recently evaluated the District of Columbia's use of promotion gates. "But the proper point of view must be to approach the new policy very, very carefully, or it becomes clearly punitive for some groups."

"An improperly implemented gates policy can result in serious problems to students and school systems," agreed W. James Popham, an expert on basic-skills testing who teaches in the school of education at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Among the specific concerns they and others raise:

Keeping large numbers of students in the same grade for several years can be damaging psychologically for the students and can create classroom problems for teachers who are forced, in some cases, to teach students whose ages are two, three, and even four years apart.

Some school systems have not adequately prepared themselves to meet the needs of those students who repeatedly fail to master the skills needed for promotion.

"It is what they have done least well at," said Norman Gold, a research associate at the National Institute of Education (nie), who recently contributed to the evaluation of the District of Columbia's promotion-gates policy.

As an indication of this, Atlanta and the District of Columbia have two-year-old programs and are facing for the first time the problem of how to deal with large numbers of double holdovers. But neither yet knows how many double holdovers the schools will have, and neither city's school board has a districtwide policy for dealing with them.

The recently completed nie study of the Washington, D.C., program said: "The non-standardization of remedial programs ... is creating several problems. Students with similar needs are not receiving a similar quality of services across schools."

Where remedial programs are in place, the cost can be burdensome.

"We are spending a tremendous amount of resources on a small number of kids," said Thomas Minter, deputy chancellor for instruction for the New York City school system.

This year, for the first time, that city is trying a number of strategies to help those who are being left behind for the second time, including combining remedial academic work with vocational training and allowing 7th graders (some of whom are 17 years old) to spend much of their school day with their peers in high school.

While the double holdovers in New York City are being removed from their regular classrooms, many school systems attempt to keep such students "in the mainstream" by putting them in smaller classes or offer-ing after-school tutoring. A number of school systems are apparently coping with large numbers of students piling up at certain grade-levels by simply reallocating their existing teaching force.

The promotion standards used by some school systems may be unfair.

While many systems use combinations of test scores, teacher recommendations, and success on systemwide checklists of reading and mathematics skills to make promotion decisions, some--including New York City--advance a student solely on the basis of a standardized-test score.

In 1981, several black students in Greensville County, Va.--represented by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit legal group--were successful in forcing the predominantly black school system to end its policy of using a single achievement-test score to make promotion decisions. A more widely publicized promotion case, Debra P. v. Turlington, involves a challenge to Florida's law requiring students to pass a standardized test in order to earn a high-school diploma. The case is scheduled to be re-argued in Federal District Court in January.

Although 17 states have in the past several years introduced such test requirements for graduation, only a few--including Louisiana, Florida, and California--have so far mandated statewide grade-to-grade promotion requirements.

In some cases, the standards are so low as to be meaningless. New York City, for example, advances its 7th graders if they

read and compute at the 5th-grade level.

"The promotion-gates concept is good for school administrators and good for communities seeking accountability, but we're not yet sure it is good for children," said Mr. Gold of nie "Passing a test does not mean students are any better educated; there is a big difference between being able to read and being literate."

But, "You've got to start somewhere," said Mr. Minter of New York City. "Some might say our standards are not stringent enough. But clearly, we are getting a lot of kids who cannot even meet the ones we have now."

Most educators agree that so-called social promotion by age has resulted in many students being given meaningless diplomas. And, in many cases, there is significant support for the use of promotion gates, even when large numbers of children fail to get

through them.

"Because we have had parents involved, the resistance has been minuscule," said James Hawkins, superintendent of the Benton Harbor School District in southwest Michigan, where 22 percent of all kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd graders were held back in June.

Others contend, however, that the use of promotion restrictions reduces the flexibility teachers have in dealing with children who learn at different paces.

They argue that it can impede the development of gifted and talented students and too often becomes a bureaucratic burden for teachers, who in many school systems with gates programs are responsible for charting their students' efforts to master various checklists of skills.

"A lot of instructional time must be taken up at mid-year reorganizing classes," said James T. Guines, associate superintendent of the District of Columbia schools, where students in grades 1-6 are re-evaluated every semester.

The nie study recommended that the city make promotion decisions only once a year. "There are people who want to hold us to using semester gates, when, instructionally, we should probably do otherwise," said Mr. Guines.

"There is a lot of pressure from the public and the media."

The Washington schools are apparently the only ones that have semester-to-semester promotion gates. When the program was first introduced in the 1980-81 school year, 38 percent of district's 3rd graders were forced to repeat the first semester of the 3rd grade.

Some systems have new and tougher standards for grade-to-grade advancement. Others--such as New York--only have gates at one or two grades. Perhaps the largest number of districts have set specific graduation standards.

Officials involved in such efforts believe that the number of school systems--especially those in urban areas--using promotion gates will continue to grow.

However, says Mr. Gold of nie: "There is a need to make sure that the cure for the weaknesses of social promotion does not become worse than the disease."

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