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The Birmingham Essential Skills Test will no longer be the key factor in determining whether students are held back in the Alabama city's schools, the school board has decided.

As part of an effort to raise standards for student performance, the district in 1985 required students in the 2nd through the 8th grades to pass the reading and mathematics test to be promoted to the next grade.

In practice, however, the test has become an "obstacle" that has blocked about 200 to 300 students each year from promotion even though they had passed all their courses, according to Cleveland Hammonds Jr., the district's superintendent of schools.

Under the new policy adopted last month, the district will consider grades, attendance, and teacher recommendations, as well as test scores, in deciding whether students should be promoted. In addition, Mr. Hammonds said, students who fail the essential-skills test will be required to attend summer school.

Critics on the board charged that the policy change suggests that the district is backing away from its standards for student achievement. But Mr. Hammonds denied that the policy would "reduce the so-called standards."

"The problem in this case is that the standards have been one-dimensional," he said. "They did not account for varying circumstances of students."

A drug sale within 1,000 feet of school property violates federal law, no matter how far a schoolchild might have to walk to the site of the deal, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Everton G. Watson was convicted last year of conspiring to sell marijuana within a drug-free school zone in Los Angeles . Although the sale was said to have taken place 960 feet from school property "as the crow flies," argued his lawyer, Michael Brush, it was "more than 1,000 feet by the way a person would walk."

But in a decision issued late last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit rejected that argument. The stiff limits, the court ruled, fulfill the U.S. Congress's intent to curb the dangers to schoolchildren of drug trafficking.

An all-white private school in Columbus, Miss., that refused to play a foot game against a private school with a black player reversed its decision after the Mississippi Private School Association threatened to revoke its accreditation.

The East Holmes Academy gave no official explanation for why it forfeited the game last month with Heritage Academy of Columbus, which has a black sophomore on its team--the first black player in the North Central Conference of Mississippi private schools.

However, seven players quit the East Holmes team to protest the school's decision to forfeit the game. And one player told reporters that the coach had cited the black player as the reason for the forfeit.

East Holmes officials changed their minds after the private-school association made its threat.

The game between the two schools was finally played Oct. 20, without incident. Heritage Academy won, 7-0.

Teachers at a Burbank, Calif., high school staged a one-day walkout this month to protest the school board's decision not to expel a student accused of striking a teacher and making threatening comments.

George Rosales, a teacher at John Burroughs High School, said he was attempting to break up a fight between two students when a third student hit him and threatened to kill him and another teacher.

After the board voted in a closed session not to back the school's recommendation to expel the student, about 60 teachers staged a demonstration outside the school, carrying signs with such slogans as, "Go on ... Hit me! They won't do anything."

"In an increasingly hostile atmosphere in schools, teachers need to know what to do, and they need to know that they are being supported,'' Mr. Rosales said last week.

Audrey Hanson, a board member, declined to comment on the decision, saying that the board's discussion was confidential, but that its decision was final. "We believe that we considered all the facts of the situation," she said, "and we are strongly behind our decision."

Principals in some Milwaukee elementary schools have been ordered to increase the sizes of their classes to accommodate large numbers of children who are moving into their neighborhoods.

Until last month's order by district officials, principals could effectively "close" their schools to new students if enrolling those pupils would cause class sizes to swell beyond 25 for 1st-grade classes and more than 27 for the 2nd through 8th grades. Now, those classes may increase to 27 and 30, respectively.

The move has drawn criticism from the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, which claims that larger class sizes could affect the quality of education in Milwaukee schools.

Prayers before school-board meetings and forced recitation of the pledge of allegiance in public schools violate the constitutional separation of church and state, a group of atheists in Hillsborough County, Fla., has charged.

American Atheists of Tampa Bay filed suit Oct. 13 in U.S. District Court in Tampa Bay against the Hillsborough (Fla.) School District, seeking an end to the two practices. In particular, the group contends that the phrase "under God" in the pledge of allegiance, which schoolchildren are required by state law to recite each day, is unconstitutional.

The school board has previously denied a request from the group to suspend the practices. A lawyer for the district said school officials would file motions seeking that the suit be dismissed.

Despite strong opposition from school officials, teachers, parents, and students, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is going ahead with plans to build a federal prison next to the New World School of the Arts in downtown Miami.

Prison officials have planned a 1,000-bed jail on a recently purchased 1.09-acre parcel of land across from the U.S. courthouse and adjoining a lot onto which the performing-arts high school has plans to expand.

"It seems crazy to build [the prison] next to the school when there are still other options in downtown Miami," said Mandy Offerly, the school's principal. Proximity to the courthouse, however, is a factor because prison officials would like the facility to detain suspects awaiting trial.

Despite community opposition to the proposed site, Ms. Offerle said, "I fear that they will just move right along and put the prison in that spot." And if that is the case, warned the principal, "my school will not be next to it--it will either wither up and die or go elsewhere."

Schools in White County, Ga., were among the first in the state to be integrated in 1966, but, until late last month, the school-bus routes remained segregated.

When a white parent noticed the segregation and brought it to the county school board's attention, the board ordered the routes integrated. The board approved the desegregated bus routes Oct. 10, and they took effect Oct. 17. Before the changes took place, most of the district's black students rode on the same bus.

School officials in the county, a rural district in northern Georgia, said the segregated bus routes were an oversight.

"We just rearranged the bus routes to make the situation more equitable," said County Superintendent Raymond Collins.

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