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AFT Report Assails Schools' Promotion, Retention Policies

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For one of the nation's major teacher unions to come out against the unearned promotion of students to the next grade is not surprising. No overburdened educator wants to take on the business unfinished by the previous year's teacher.

But last week, the American Federation of Teachers issued a national study of school promotion and retention policies that not only assails so-called social promotion, but also frowns on the alternative--holding students back.

"The fact is, neither social promotion nor retention is the answer if the answer we're seeking is getting kids to achieve," Sandra Feldman, the president of the 950,000-member union, said in releasing the report in Washington.

'Clear Message To Promote'

That is the same conclusion that some education researchers have also reached. Unearned promotion, often advocated to prevent students from falling behind a peer group, makes for graduates unable to do simple math. But retention, on the other hand, has been associated with an increased risk of dropping out altogether. Instead, some researchers argue, schools need to intervene before the day when the choice is between promotion and retention--one of the approaches recommended in the new AFT report. ("Promote or Retain? Pendulum for Students Swings Back Again," June 11, 1997.)

During the past two years, the AFT survey, the first such national study, looked at the grade-promotion policies in 85 of the nation's largest districts, including the 40 biggest. Seventy-eight of the districts had formal, written school board policies, which ranged from three paragraphs to 30 pages. There was little consistency among them, the report says.

None of the districts surveyed had an explicit policy of social promotion, according to the report. But just about every district had an "implicit policy of social promotion," Ms. Feldman said, with districts saying that holding students back was an option of last resort.

For More Information:

"Passing on Failure: District Promotion Policies and Practices'' is available for $5 from the American Federation of Teachers, Order Department, 555 New Jersey Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20001; (202) 879-4473. Ask for Item 249.

Some districts put clear limits on retaining students, which, she said, "is another clear message to promote socially." In Orange County, Fla., which encompasses Orlando, just one retention--during the elementary grades--is allowed for a given student. In Houston, students may be held back no more than once in grades K-4 and once in grades 5-8.

The survey also found that districts' criteria for promotion and retention are often vague, lacking specific academic standards against which students are judged.

The policy in the Clark County, Nev., district, which includes Las Vegas, says that to be promoted, a student's progress "should be continuous and student advancement through the curriculum should be according to the student's demonstrated ability."

Standards and Remediation

Teacher-assigned grades and teacher recommendations were the most commonly used pieces of evidence in making decisions about holding a student back, whether the student was in elementary, middle, or high school, according to the survey. Yet, among the 85 districts surveyed, the teacher had the final say on promotion for some or all grade levels in just three school districts: Cartwright and Glendale, Ariz., and Lake Washington, Wash.

Few districts mandate programs to help students who are in danger of failing or for those who have been retained, as education experts recommend. Just 15 percent of the districts surveyed mention tutoring in their policies, and only about 13 percent cite alternative programs and strategies, such as transitional classes, extended instructional time, or individual plans for students. About half of the policies note summer school as an option. But, Ms. Feldman said, funding for summer school has often been cut dramatically by districts, with districts asking students to pay to attend summer sessions.

In offering solutions to the promotion-retention dilemma, the AFT calls for high-quality preschool and kindergarten programs for all children--or, at minimum, for the neediest children.

The union in its report also continues its campaign of advocating that students be held to explicit, rigorous, grade-by-grade standards and that all elementary teachers be sufficiently trained in how to teach reading. In addition, the report calls for early identification and intervention for pupils having academic problems and the use of remedial approaches.

The report was welcomed by at least one researcher who has studied the retention issue. A survey of so many districts--and so many of the nation's largest--is helpful for documenting their disparate practices, said Arthur J. Reynolds, an associate professor of social work and child and family studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (See a related commentary, Grade Retention Doesn't Work," in This Week's News.)

And to the extent that the report "calls attention to prevention programs and beginning in early childhood," he said, "that's important."

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