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Texas Governor Has Social Promotions in His Sights

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Gov. George W. Bush of Texas has launched his 1998 re-election bid with a get-tough pledge to make it harder for public school students to advance to the next grade before mastering basic academic skills.

In an effort to end so-called social promotions, Mr. Bush would require students in certain grades to pass statewide tests in order to move up a grade. Students who failed the exams would receive intensive remedial help.

Governors in California, Delaware, Michigan, and Wisconsin have made similar pledges, and, in his State of the Union Address last month, President Clinton declared that "it is time to end social promotion in America's schools."

Of the few states with social-promotion policies in place, Louisiana's is the most extensive, said Heidi Glidden, a researcher for the American Federation of Teachers. "It goes the farthest toward retaining students not at grade level and providing them with academic intervention," she said.

Mr. Bush's plan has drawn both praise and concern from Texas education groups, which say they welcome the debate but worry about his one-test approach. And his Democratic challenger in the November governor's race, Garry Mauro, says that the idea will prove too expensive and punitive.

Mr. Bush shrugs off the detractors as defenders of a failed status quo.

"Some say tests should not matter," he told state education officials in a recent speech. "I say our children are not with us long before they have to face the real world. And in the real world, tests are a reality."

Dueling Plans

Under current state policy, local school officials determine whether to pass a student to the next grade. In 1995-96, the state's overall K-12 retention rate was 4.3 percent and 144,683 students were kept in the same grade.

Under Gov. Bush's plan, 3rd graders who do not pass the reading portion of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills would be required to receive help before moving to regular classrooms in the 4th grade. The same would hold true for 5th graders who failed to pass reading and math exams and 8th graders who did not pass tests in reading, math, and writing. The state would provide funding for locally developed intervention programs.

Mr. Bush will present the plan to the legislature when it meets again next year. The plan would go into effect starting with the kindergarten class of 1999-2000. Mr. Bush also plans to seek $221 million to expand phonics-based teacher reading academies, create teacher academies in upper-level math and science, and pay for local remediation programs.

"My plan to end social promotion is rigorous, and I know that," Mr. Bush said. "I want Texas to have the highest standards and the best educated students in the nation."

His Democratic challenger, a former state land commissioner, has a different proposal.

Mr. Mauro would give teachers the final word on student promotions. State tests would be a tool, he said, but not the deciding factor.

The underdog challenger contends that Mr. Bush's plan would flunk 2.5 million children in the next decade, and cost $13.1 billion for remedial instruction.

In contrast, Mr. Mauro would borrow $2 billion from a $16 billion state school trust account to build new schools. He also wants to provide $5,000 bonuses for top college students who become teachers, as well as teachers who earn certification in the subjects they teach.

"[My plan] addresses the problem of social promotion where it begins: in the classroom," Mr. Mauro said in a written statement.

Cautious Reactions

Representatives of state education groups said they are glad that schools have a high profile this early in the gubernatorial race. But they have been slow to embrace either candidate's stance on student promotions.

"Before we make decisions, I hope they seek input from teachers," said Larry Comber, the spokesman for the independent Association of Texas Professional Educators. "This makes for good headlines, and everyone wants to do it, but the details are the tough part."

Jeri Stone, the executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, which is also independent, said that giving teachers sole responsibility for student advancement has its own potential pitfalls: "Teachers can make pass-fail decisions, but may face reprimands or poor performance reviews for retaining too many."

The Texas Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, began calling for a social promotion policy three years ago. In a 1995 survey of 2,123 teachers by the union, 70 percent of elementary teachers and 61 percent of middle and high school teachers said students who failed their classes were promoted to the next grade.

"We are thrilled that on the big issues of stopping social promotion and dealing with reading early on, bipartisan agreement is growing," said John Cole, the president of the TFT. "What we have now is a debate over fine points ... but that's not the crucial matter."

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