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Philadelphia Board To Vote on Easing Promotion Policy

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The Philadelphia school board was scheduled to vote this week on a plan to soften its strict promotion policy so that fewer students will be forced to repeat a grade when they fail.

"We have more and more children coming to school with various levels of deprivation,'' said Rita Altman, the school system's associate superintendent for accountability and assessment. "And we really want to give every child an opportunity to succeed.''

But, in a debate that echoes that in several states and large cities in recent years, some Philadelphia school board members say they fear the change will signal that the system is lowering its academic standards. Without sanctions for poor academic performance, they say, students will not try as hard to succeed in school.

Under current policy, students are retained if they do not meet specified districtwide standards for achievement. The policy, begun in 1985, was a key piece of Superintendent Constance E. Clayton's widely publicized plan to reform the city's schools.

Previously, district administrators said, teachers had no clear direction on what to do with failing students. As a result, pupils were often promoted regardless of their level of academic achievement.

An Immediate Impact

The move away from "social promotion'' in 1985 had an almost immediate effect on the system. In the first year of the new policy, Ms. Altman said, 22 percent of students in grades 1 through 8 were held back. Currently, about 9 percent of elementary students are retained each year.

However, Ms. Clayton had promised to review the policy after five years. A task force appointed in 1990 to carry out that task concluded that, although the retention rates had declined significantly in recent years, too many children were still suffering the stigma of retention.

Many of those students, the task force found, were young children who had come into the system with little or no experience in kindergarten--either because full-day kindergarten programs were not available in their overcrowded neighborhood schools, or because parents did not send their children to them.

"When you're talking about 1st graders, does it really make sense to hold them back?'' said Debra Kahn, a board member who favors modifying the policy. "Kids really do develop at different rates, and it's really kind of arbitrary to hold them back.''

The task force also cited a number of national studies suggesting that students who are retained in grade are more likely to drop out of school later and to develop low self-esteem.

The panel made two major recommendations. The first--and most sweeping--was to move the school system to ungraded elementary school classrooms, in which students of differing ages could progress at their individual rates of development and remain with the same teacher over several years.

"This would permit movement based on teacher assessment and students would be given a longer period of time to accomplish learning outcomes,'' said Ms. Altman, who also chaired the task force.

Until that goal could be accomplished, the task force recommended, the district should bar schools from retaining 1st graders and limit the number of years a student could be held back between grades 2 and 8. Under the new policy, which would be in place for two years, students could be retained no more than twice in those years.

The plan also calls for schools to intervene when students are failing and to find ways they can succeed in age-appropriate classrooms. Ms. Altman said such intervention may take the form of support teams that meet to discuss a troubled student's learning needs, summer or extended-year school programs, or tutoring.

"It does mean we will have to rethink how we use monies dedicated to support kids who need extra help,'' she said.

Because the move to ungraded classrooms would call for a major overhaul of the way schools work, the district will begin testing the idea over the next year in a handful of schools.

The board was scheduled to vote Nov. 9 only on the change in the promotion policy, which would take effect immediately.

Some Opposition

While a majority of the nine board members are expected to endorse the change, the proposal has prompted outspoken opposition from at least one board member.

"Unless we retain the sanction, we're not going to get compliance with our standards from a number of students,'' Thomas Mills said.

"The student who is just like I was is just going to sit there and drift,'' added Mr. Mills, a former high school dropout who now holds a doctorate in finance.

Promotion policies have been a subject of debate across the nation in recent years, said Lorrie A. Shepard, a University of Colorado researcher who has studied the subject.

While a number of major school systems are moving, as did Philadelphia, to toughen such policies, states like California and Massachusetts and large cities like Boston are beginning to turn away from such practices as research suggests they may be counterproductive, Ms. Shepard said.

In Philadelphia, the topic is expected to generate continued debate in the months ahead as the district holds public forums on the expected change in the promotion policy and the proposal to move to ungraded classrooms.

"From the parents' standpoint,'' Mr. Mills predicted, "I think they're going to take the view that this is further evidence of an erosion of standards in the classroom.''

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