Plans in Houston and N.Y.C. Would Tighten Promotion Rules

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New York City last week became the latest big-city district to declare war on promoting students who aren't ready for the next grade, as Houston moved just one step away from making a ban on the practice a reality.

The Houston school board gave preliminary approval earlier this month to the proposed promotion standards, which Superintendent Rod Paige called "a major step toward academic accountability." The policy, expected to win final approval next month, would deny students advancement to the next grade if their grades and test scores were not up to snuff.

In New York, Schools Chancellor Rudy F. Crew unveiled a plan last week to prevent the academically unjustified promotion of students for social reasons.

The developments come as a growing number of districts and states crack down on the "social promotion" of students. Many politicians, including President Clinton, have recently denounced the practice, as has the American Federation of Teachers. ("Promote or Retain? Pendulum for Students Swings Back Again," June 11, 1997.)

Chicago's 3-year-old policy, which involves mandatory summer school and has been repeatedly expanded to include more grades, has drawn nationwide publicity. Others gearing up to attack the issue include Boston, Philadelphia, and Seattle.

Among states, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, and Louisiana have cracked down in recent years. In Texas, Gov. George W. Bush is pushing a plan to ban social promotions statewide. The governor was on hand when Mr. Paige rolled out his proposal in January, and said he hoped more Texas districts would follow Houston's lead.

Summer School Required

Under the Houston plan, students would be expected to pass state achievement tests, score no more than one grade level behind on nationally norm-referenced exams, and post an average grade of 70 in their class work to advance.

Students falling short in any area would be required to attend summer school. And if they failed to meet two or more of the promotion criteria, they would be held back. The new rules would take effect in grades 1-3 starting next spring and in grades 3-8 in 2000.

Under current district policy, students may be retained no more than once in elementary school and once in middle school. The state required such limits on retention until last year.

District leaders say that they will devise programs for helping students at risk of failing to meet the new promotion standards, but that the details have yet to be nailed down.

Talks With Union on Tap

In New York, Mr. Crew unveiled a draft plan last week to require 4th and 7th graders to meet minimum standards to advance. Criteria would include passing scores on state and city achievement tests, classroom grades and course work, and attendance.

To prepare students for the 4th grade milepost, Mr. Crew wants to expand the 1.1 million-student district's summer literacy program for students in grades K-2, as well as separate summer programs serving struggling 3rd graders and middle schoolers.

Mr. Crew discussed his proposal with the school board in closed session because it involved matters to be negotiated with employee unions, said Chiara Coletti, a district spokeswoman. Among the central issues will be summer school and how teachers will be compensated for it, she said.

Deputy Chancellor Judith Rizzo said last week that school officials had not yet determined under what circumstances, if any, children would be required to attend summer school. She said mandatory summer classes might not be needed, especially if the district wins its battle to extend the school year by 20 days.

The district has identified 220,000 students in grades K-8 who are performing below grade level, but had money last year to send fewer than 54,000 of them to summer school. Providing summer school for the rest of the identified children would cost an extra $76 million, the districtestimates.

Mr. Crew wants to delay implementation of the new standards until the 1999-2000 school year.

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