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Published in Print: March 28, 2001, as Ga. OKs Social-Promotion Ban As Texas Revisits Its Own

Ga. OKs Social-Promotion Ban As Texas Revisits Its Own

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The movement to end social promotion got a boost last week from the Georgia legislature. And it seemed to be holding its own in Texas, where an effort to slow down new promotion requirements lost potentially crucial support from state leaders.

Jim Nelson

Under a bill approved on March 21 by Georgia legislators in the final hours of their session, students in grades 3, 5, and 8 would have to pass state tests to step up to the next grade, beginning with 3rd graders in 2004. Children who enter 3rd grade in 2003 would be required to pass a state reading test, while those who start 5th grade in 2004 and 8th grade in 2005 would need to pass state reading and mathematics tests.

Students who failed would get extra help and take the tests again, under the measure, which has been a legislative priority of Gov. Roy E. Barnes, a Democrat. Those who failed a second time would be held back unless a three-member committee—usually, one of the the child's parents, his or her teacher, and the principal—agreed on promotion instead.

Critics of the bill said they were worried that children would not get enough help to pass the tests, and that the change would end up disproportionately penalizing minority children, whose test scores have historically lagged behind those of whites. But other education advocates said the bill would spark greater learning, while curbing the practice of advancing academically unprepared students on to the next grade to keep them with their social peers.

"With the interventions and with the safeguards in place, we think [the bill] is a good thing," said Tom Upchurch, the president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a nonpartisan education advocacy group of business, education, and government leaders.

If Gov. Barnes signs the bill, which he is expected to do in the coming weeks, Georgia will join only a handful of states that use—or are scheduled to use—state tests to determine whether students should be promoted. ("Social-Promotion Ban Advances in Georgia," March 21, 2001.)

Challenge in Texas

One of those states is Texas, where legislators in 1999 passed legislation aimed at ending automatic promotion that had been championed by President Bush when he was the governor of the Lone Star State. That law came under challenge this month, after state Commissioner of Education Jim Nelson and Gov. Rick Perry expressed support for a one-year postponement of the measure as it would affect children who enter 3rd grade in 2002.

In a legislative hearing, Mr. Nelson said the rules to curb social promotion would be hard to implement that school year because new, tougher state tests—the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills II— will be introduced that spring. On the same day as Mr. Nelson's testimony, the Texas House of Representatives unanimously agreed to accept a bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Sylvester Turner that would delay the plan.

But, three days after the hearing, Mr. Nelson retreated from the view he expressed then, with Gov. Perry, a Republican, soon following suit. Both men said in written statements last week that, thanks to measures that had been put in place to help students and train teachers, they expected a high percentage of 3rd graders to pass the tests.

Under the 1999 law on social promotion, 3rd graders will be required to pass a state reading test to step up a grade; in later years, 5th and 8th graders will have to achieve passing grades on additional state tests to win promotion. As under the Georgia bill, in Texas a committee of the child's parent, teacher, and principal will be able to override retention with a unanimous vote.

Presidential View

An angry Rep. Turner suggested to reporters that President Bush, who is pushing for Texas-style accountability across the nation, had intervened. But Commissioner Nelson insisted that he had had a change of heart after reviewing figures for past and projected 3rd grade passing rates and talking with staff members.

"Our teachers and our students are up to this new challenge," Mr. Nelson said in his statement, a phrase that was echoed two days later in a statement from Gov. Perry.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for President Bush was quoted in Texas news accounts as saying the president opposed any delays in curbing social promotion in the state.

A spokesman for Rep. Turner said last week that the state lawmaker was not deterred and would continue to push for the change. "We want a year when the consequences will not be that severe" for students and for schools, which are rated largely based on their students' TAAS performance, said P. Jacob Lipp, Mr. Turner's legislative aide.

But the bill will likely face a tougher fight without its earlier support from Mr. Nelson, especially in the Senate, which, unlike the House, is narrowly controlled by Republicans.

Sen. Teel Bivins, a Republican who is the chairman of the Senate education committee, said he opposed a postponement. "The idea is that the kids are somehow suffering if they are held back," he said. "I think the far greater wrong is promoting kids who we know will suffer if they are advanced."

Vol. 20, Issue 28, Pages 18,23

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