Promote or Retain? Pendulum for Students Swings Back Again

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For Tony E. Fulton, the last straw came when he tried to buy Venetian blinds at Linen World in Baltimore.

Not only was a store worker, a recent high school graduate, unable to convert measurements in feet to inches. But Mr. Fulton, a Maryland state delegate, was also unable to interest either the employee or the store manager in the importance of being able to do such a calculation.

So the Baltimore Democrat took the one action he felt might keep another student from graduating from Maryland schools unable to do simple math. He introduced a bill this year in the legislature that would have permitted student promotion to the next grade in a public school only on the basis of "the student's academic performance and demonstrated competency."

The experience at the store was "outrageous," Mr. Fulton said in recounting the story in a recent interview. "We can't make excuses for nonperformance."

The bill was ultimately unsuccessful, failing to gain the backing of a key committee. But the action reflects the thinking of a growing number of politicians, including President Clinton, as well as many state and local education officials: The promotion of students simply for "social" reasons--because of their age or the fact that they've warmed a seat for an entire school year--has to stop.

The get-tough stance of holding students back if they cannot show they can do grade-level work has become part of the ongoing movement for tougher academic standards for students nationwide.

At the national education summit last year in Palisades, N.Y., the president called for student testing "that says no more social promotions, no more free passes." To further that goal, the U.S. Department of Education is creating voluntary national tests in reading and math that were proposed by Mr. Clinton in his State of the Union Address this year.

And whether in Chicago, Long Beach, Calif., or Portsmouth, Va., school officials are bashing so-called social promotion and trying to rid their districts of the practice.

Leaders of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have also been arguing against it. Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association in New York, an AFT affiliate, calls social promotion "the most insidious form of racism" and educational "malpractice."

In his urban district, the union has waged for several years what Mr. Urbanski calls "a war against social promotion"--a practice that would not be tolerated in a suburban district, he argues. "What social promotion essentially says is, 'You can't learn this anyway, or at least not soon enough for us not to be embarrassed by it.'"

Shades of Gray

But some researchers say that to think of only two options for students--promotion or retention--is to see only the ends of the spectrum and to miss the middle.

"I wish we had advanced the discussion to a different level between the black-and-white alternatives of social promotion and retention," said Nancy L. Karweit, a principal research scientist at the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

"What school reform should be about," she said, "is having flexible enough arrangements so that all children can receive the instructional depth and time that is required for them to make progress."

The collective educational wisdom on the promotion-retention issue seems to cycle every few years back and forth between the two alternatives. "There's a pendulum swing that's always going on with this issue," Ms. Karweit said.

In the 1970s, social promotion was in vogue. During the 1980s, the standards-raising movement made retention more appealing. By 1990, though, New York City and Chicago were revising district policies in order to encourage promotion. ("Education Officials Reconsider Policies on Grade Retention," May 16, 1990.)

Now the pendulum is swinging back, and Chicago, for one, is cracking down. Last week, more than 42,200 students in grades 3, 6, 8, and 9including 48 percent of 9th graderslearned that they would have to attend summer school to raise their low standardized-test scores. In most cases, they will not be able to advance until they meet minimums set by the 413,000-student district.

It is with an eye toward preventing later school failure that the Long Beach school board decided this school year to have checkpoints at both 3rd grade and 8th grade, said Richard Van Der Laan, a district spokesman.

Long Beach 3rd graders with low reading scores will have to take intensive reading instruction this summer. This fall, 8th graders with two or more F's will not enter high school directly but go instead to an alternative school until they can shore up their skills.

There is no national figure for what proportion of schoolchildren is retained. Experts' estimates vary widely: Between 20 percent and half of all 9th graders may have flunked at least one grade or are no longer in school, they say.

What is known is that, nationwide, most retentions occur in the elementary grades, most often between the 1st and 4th grades.

'Transition' Classes

A Virginia district has also gone on the offensive against social promotions, ratcheting up expectations for both its elementary and high school students.

After years of hearing employers and colleges complain about the skill levels of their graduates, officials in the Portsmouth city schools "just realized that here in Portsmouth that promoting students who cannot do the work misleads everyone," said Superintendent Richard D. Trumble. By advancing students and eventually graduating them with inadequate skills, "we fib to the student," he said.

Mr. Fulton in Baltimore echoed that sentiment. To award an unprepared student a high school diploma "really devalues the degree that other kids receive who've really earned it," the state lawmaker said.

The Portsmouth school board this spring approved a tougher policy for high schoolers. Beginning with this fall's freshman class, students in the 17,700-student district will have to maintain a minimum grade point average in order to graduate--a cumulative 1.3 out of a possible 4.0--over four years. Previously, all students needed to pass was slightly more than an F. Students in the class of 2001 also will have to take and pass algebra sometime before graduation.

The next year's class will have it harder. Those students will have to pass algebra in the 9th grade to advance to 10th grade and maintain a 1.6 GPA to graduate.

And by the time the class of 2003 graduates, students will have to earn a 2.0 GPA, or C average, to get their diplomas.

Mr. Trumble said that students who find themselves having trouble meeting the requirements can retake algebra or other classes during the school year or in summer or night school and, eventually, perhaps by television.

For its elementary students, the district is requiring pupils who do not show grade-level reading skills by the end of the school year to repeat the grade. Because of state class-size-reduction aid, Portsmouth has two reading-resource teachers in each elementary school who can also offer more help to students who need it.

Once Virginia launches its new state competency exam for 3rd, 5th, and 8th graders--planned for next year--the Portsmouth school board has decided, within three years, to use those tests as gatekeepers for promotion. Students will have to reach a minimum score to move on to the next grade, Mr. Trumble said.

He acknowledges that the new requirements will make the tests "high stress" events, but he said that is the only way to assure the public and the school system that students are really learning what they need to know.

Mr. Trumble is also aware that having an elementary student repeat a grade and go through the same material a second time is no guarantee of success. But, he said, "the reality is school systems don't have enough money to create alternative school systems" for students needing extra help.

So Portsmouth has fashioned something of a compromise. The district created "transition" or between-grade classes for elementary schools. The total number of classrooms and teachers is the same as without the program, but those students who, say, need more time on 1st grade material are grouped in a classroom with those needing more time in 2nd grade. That way an entire classroom is focused on bringing along students who need more help, and the students may move on to the next grade at any point during the year.

About two-thirds of the students in Portsmouth are from low-income African-American homes, and Mr. Trumble said he feels a "special obligation" to hold them to high expectations. He said he even considers it a matter of social justice. "To keep people economically enslaved," Mr. Trumble said, "fail to educate them."

Stay Back, Drop Out

Is retention bad for students? Some researchers say yes. Retention can actually harm academic achievement, according to Lorrie A. Shepard, the interim dean of the education school at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

She takes issue with the use of the term "social promotion" because it assumes the decision to promote is made for social reasons. She argues that for an underachieving child, promotion is in the child's best interests academically.

She cited recent analyses of existing research that show that when retained children went on to the next grade, they performed worse on average than if they had gone on without repeating.

For that matter, students who are held back are more likely to drop out, many experts agree. Ms. Shepard's own research has found that to be the case. Three large-scale studies she and another researcher conducted in the 1980s looked at 20,000 to 80,000 students each. The researchers found that of students with equally poor achievement--and controlling for other background characteristics associated with dropping out, such as race, ethnicity, and gender--students who repeated a year were 20 percent to 30 percent more likely to drop out of school.

Instead of retaining students, Ms. Shepard argues, schools should provide extra instructional help, before- or- after-school programs, summer school, or no-cost peer tutoring. If some of those options sound pricey, the cost of retention can be high, too; the average spending for a year of public schooling is about $5,500 per pupil, according to federal education statistics.

And Ms. Shepard and others take a dim view, for several reasons, of parallel tracks or pullout programs for students needing help with skills. Such approaches may offer a watered-down curriculum. Or, if students are plopped back into the regular classroom at midyear, they may be at a disadvantage if they have not been covering the same material.

Even transitional classes are "just retention under a different name," contends C. Thomas Holmes, an education professor at the University of Georgia in Athens. Mr. Holmes and others offer multiage classrooms as another alternative to the traditional promote-or-retain scenario.

But according to some researchers at Johns Hopkins University, having a student repeat a grade is not always a negative practice. They found in a study of inner-city Baltimore students that those who repeated a grade in elementary school saw their grades, test scores, and self-esteem improve. The longitudinal study is also expected to yield information on how these students fare as they grow older.

"Repeating the year gave them a chance to consolidate their skills," said Karl L. Alexander, a sociology professor running the study.

Mr. Alexander emphasized, however, that retention is not a cure-all. The students who realized some benefits from retention were those kept back just one year. Even so, while they moved from failing to passing, they remained behind peers their same age and were still having "serious problems," Mr. Alexander said.

Retention alone does not eliminate the student's difficulties, he said. Ideally, Mr. Alexander said, the student would be getting extra resources and attention to address academic deficits.

While some point to the detrimental effects retention can have on self-esteem, Mr. Alexander speculated that such negative social effects may have been eased in Baltimore because retention is fairly common and does not seem to make students social pariahs.

By the students' eighth year of schooling, the Hopkins researchers found, four in 10 students had been retained at least once.

And all in the backyard of state Delegate Fulton, who had so much trouble buying blinds.

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