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Philadelphia Moving To Promote Students on Basis of Performance

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Philadephia--In high schools and junior high schools across Philadelphia, teachers have been asking the same question for years about students who turn up in their classrooms with the academic skills of 5th graders: "How did they get here?"

It is, of course, a rhetorical question, and most secondary-school teachers and administrators here know that the answer is social promotion, the Philadelphia School District's longstanding policy of promoting most students from 1st grade through 8th grade simply because they get older--but not necessarily wiser--each year.

But social promotion, school officials say, is soon to go from being a matter of tradition to being a thing of the past.

Superintendent of Schools Constance E. Clayton has pledged to put in place by September a promotion policy that would require students to meet some type of academic standard before being promoted to the next grade.

In doing so, Philadelphia joins several other metropolitan school systems--including New York, Atlanta, and Dade County, Fla.--that, under public pressure to demonstrate that students are actually learning in school, have abandoned the practice of advancing students on the basis of age and are now tying promotion to test scores or some other quantifiable criteria.

Difficult Issues

Making the transition, however, from an ingrained social-promotion system to a promotion policy based on academic standards is proving to be no simple task in Philadelphia, the nation's fifth-largest school district.

A high-level committee of school officials and community representatives is now wrestling with a series of difficult issues related to such a policy--the kind of standards students would be required to meet, whether those standards should apply in all grades or only at several so-called "gates," and what type of remedial help schools should provide for students who are held back.

And a recent study prepared by school officials for Ms. Clayton's promotion commit6tee estimated that the percentage of students currently in grades 1 through 8 could triple or quadruple by June 1985 if a promotion policy based on academic standards is established.

Currently, the district holds back about 8.7 percent of its enrollment--about 9,800 students--in the eight grades.

If students in those grades were required for promotion to pass achievement tests in reading and mathematics at "minimal" levels next year, the study estimated, the district would have to retain about 23.2 percent of its enrollment, or about 24,300 students in grades 1 through 8.

And if students were required to pass achievement tests at levels high enough to ensure that they were on grade level in reading and mathematics, according to the study, the district would have to retain about 38.4 percent of its enrollment, or about 40,265 students.

Indeed, as one school-district official said recently, members of Ms. Clayton's promotion committee are having a difficult time developing a policy because "whenever they have to face up to the reality of the number of kids that would be retained in each grade, they start to get cold feet."

While other district officials warn that deficiencies in existing data probably led them to overestimate the number of students that would be held back under a new promotion policy, the estimates in the recent study make one thing clear: The number of retentions would soar.

Underachievement Noted

Debra Weiner, a well-known citizen activist in public education here and a member of the committee developing the new promotion policy, said the study's estimates provide "a dramatic sense of the magnitude of underachievement in the system."

"This school system," she said, "has a long way to go in terms of improving academic achievement."

In the final analysis, a policy that would require holding back much larger numbers of students in the first eight grades would probably be preferable to what is now taking place, Ms. Weiner and others suggest.

Currently, most students are socially promoted in grades 1 through 8. But oncethe city's students get to high school--where state-mandated graduation requirements provide an achievement-based promotion policy--the failure rate skyrockets.

In the 1981-82 school year, for example, the district's retention rate went from 6.3 percent of 8th-grade students to 19.5 percent of all 9th graders and 26 percent of all 10th graders.

Probably the best estimate of what the citywide impact of a new promotion policy would be comes from one section of the city system in which a promotion policy based on academic standards was started in 1982-83 as a pilot project.

As part of the project, conducted in Northwest Philadelphia and generally supported by parents, students in grades 2, 5, and 8 were required for promotion to pass achievement tests at minimal levels for reading and mathematics.

By May 1983, district officials had identified about 950 students in grades 2, 5, and 8 as likely candidates for retention--about triple the number left back the previous year.

However, simply by holding those students up to a standard and warning them that they would probably be held back, officials said, 200 managed to improve their performance enough by June to be promoted.

Ultimately, about 750 students in the three grades were held back--more than twice the number of students retained in those grades the previous year.

But of those 750 students who were held back in June 1983, about 470 completed an intensive five-week summer-school program offered to provide remedial instruction as part of the project. And about 300 of those students made enough progress during summer school to move on to the next grade in September without repeating a year.

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