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Published in Print: December 15, 1999, as L.A. To Ease Requirements For Promotion

L.A. To Ease Requirements For Promotion

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When outgoing Gov. Pete Wilson of California signed legislation last year calling on schools to end what he called the tragedy of social promotion by 2001, Los Angeles administrators not only accepted the challenge, they vowed to stop the practice in every grade a year ahead of the state's timetable.

But, with more than half the district's 710,000 students at risk of being held back a grade for failing to meet the state's promotion standards, the district's new leadership team has proposed scaling back that plan.

Under a revised plan unveiled Nov. 30 by interim Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines and Chief Operating Officer Howard B. Miller, the district, beginning next July, would retain only 2nd and perhaps 8th grade students who weren't academically prepared to move to the next grade. Third, 4th, and 5th graders could be required to meet minimum standards before advancing to the next grade beginning in July 2001.

Los Angeles' action underscores the difficulties districts face in curbing the widely criticized practice of promoting students who are failing in their current grades. President Clinton, state governors, and other policy leaders have targeted social promotion in their efforts to hold students and schools to higher standards of performance.

But officials of the Los Angeles Unified School District say their current proposal, details of which are still being hammered out, by no means represents a lowering of standards in the nation's second-largest school system.

Instead, they say, the scaled-back model is fairer to teachers and students. It is also more realistic, they say, given the difficulties of holding back large numbers of students while classroom space is tight and teachers need training to help meet the new standards.

"We're moving ahead" with plans to end social promotion, Carmen Schroeder, the district's associate superintendent in charge of instruction, said last week. "We're just moving ahead a little more deliberately and a little more thoughtfully."

School board President Genethia Hayes echoed those sentiments, adding that the new proposal appeared to have broad support from her colleagues. She said she expected the board to vote on the full plan next month.

"I don't take issue with the fact that we're scaling back, but we haven't lost our focus on high standards," Ms. Hayes said. The district's original blueprint, she said, which was put together by outgoing Superintendent Ruben Zacarias in 1997 and approved by the school board last February before spring elections brought changes in the board's makeup, "was overly ambitious and totally underfunded," she said.

"There were no real thoughts about how to remediate students," train teachers, or address the lack of classroom space in the district, Ms. Hayes maintained.

Time To 'Smell the Garlic'

Mr. Zacarias' proposal to do away with social promotion was politically popular when it was announced. But critics argue that his plan was far-fetched, and that the district doesn't have the tools to help students and teachers meet the new standards for student promotion.

"Someone needed to wake up and smell the garlic," said Day Higuchi, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a 41,000-member joint affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. Most schools in Los Angeles, he said, lack the materials for teaching to the state's new standards. And teachers, many of whom hadn't yet been given written copies of the new standards, he said, have not received instructional materials or training.

"It sounded great when Ruben Zacarias stood up at a meeting and said, 'We're not only going to end social promotion, we're going to do it a year ahead of schedule,' " Mr. Higuchi added. "But teachers and principals were panicked. There was a unanimous chorus that the timing was impossible."

District demographics, he and others contend, make such sweeping policy changes difficult: Some 75 percent of Los Angeles students fall below the poverty line; half are not proficient in English; and at least a quarter of the district's teachers are working with emergency credentials.

Given those challenges, remediation programs for students who have fallen behind are going to be complex and costly, as will be the training for the teachers who lead those efforts, said David Tokofsky, a district school board member. Which is why, he said, focusing on ending social promotion "one or two grades at a time" is much more realistic.

"We need clarity, commitment, and consensus about each ingredient" of the new policy, he said.

Worries Elsewhere

Los Angeles is not the only school system where high-stakes promotion standards are being reassessed.

In Massachusetts, the state's Education Reform Act of 1993 mandates that, beginning with the class of 2003, all high school seniors demonstrate a "mastery" of core subjects on the new state assessment before graduating.

But given the proportion of high school students scoring in the lowest categories on that test this year, the state school board has tentatively agreed to set the class of 2003's passing score just shy of the state's lowest-scoring category—"failing." ("Lawmakers Override Mass. Governor's Spending Cuts," Dec. 1, 1999.)

State schools Superintendent David P. Driscoll said the proposal keeps "faith with the average kid" in the state. But critics, including Boston University Chancellor John R. Silber, a former president of the state school board, say setting the passing bar so low "makes a mockery of reform."

When it comes to softening standards, such debate should be expected, said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "If folks aren't realistic in setting standards and careful about implementing them," she said, "there will be some devil in the details."

In Arizona and Virginia, which are phasing in graduation-test requirements similar to those in Massachusetts, policymakers are grappling with jittery students and parents and a confused public after recently released state test scores revealed substantial proportions of high school failures.

In Virginia, nearly 40 percent of the state's high school students failed one or more sections of that state's new assessment, and would therefore have failed to meet graduation requirements in place for the class of 2004. And in Arizona, only about one in 10 sophomores passed the mathematics portion of the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, a passing score on which will be required for the class of 2002.

But the devilish details—mainly the prospect of barring tens of thousands of students from graduating—hasn't led officials in either state to back down.

"There isn't talk about lowering the bar, and that's not where we ought to go," said Billie Orr, Arizona's associate superintendent who oversees the state's new standards and assessments. "We've had such low expectations for some kids for so long. ... For us to say some failure is OK would do a true disservice to kids."

In New York City, which with 1.1 million students is the nation's largest school system, only 55 percent of high school students have passed the English portion of the state assessment this year, which members of the class of 2000 are required to pass before graduating.

The district's efforts to end social promotion in virtually all of its lower grades could mean that, beginning next summer, more than 300,000 of its lowest-performing students will be required to attend summer school and could be held back a grade.

Nevertheless, Schools Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew said he had no plans to lower the bar. Rather than retreat from the new standards, Mr. Crew said, he will spend his time and energy this year rallying policymakers, parents, students, and the community around them.

"It's the right emotional impulse to believe that we need to provide help to students to meet the standards, especially in urban districts where there are high rates of [limited-English-proficient] students, high rates of poverty, high rates of homelessness," he said. "But I will not shoot at a target that's too low.

"We've lived with a system that for too long has sent more students to jail than Yale," he continued. "The question is, do we have the capacity morally to stand for this, or will we decry what [goals students] are not yet [reaching] and say that it will never happen?"

Vol. 19, Issue 16, Pages 1,17

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