Calif. Targets K-12 'Social Promotions'

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California lawmakers capped weeks of hard-ball politics by passing legislation last week that would clamp down on so-called social promotions and provide $115 million to help students who are falling behind.

The prelude to last week's action was Gov. Pete Wilson's prior veto of $105 million for remediation from the state's $75.4 billion budget for fiscal 1999. He promised to restore the funds if he received a bill requiring students to master basic skills before advancing in grade.

If the governor signs the three bills that make up the retention and remediation package as promised, California will become the fourth state this year to pass a law curtailing social promotions. The move is likely to give momentum to such actions, whose advocates include President Clinton.

"This is already on the national radar screen," John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank, said of the social-promotion issue. "But what California does reverberates across the West and nationally."

The retention and promotion bill was part of a budget package that lifts K-12 school aid by $2.2 billion, or 6 percent, over last year, to $23.8 billion. The spending plan earmarks new money for 9th grade class-size reduction, instructional materials, after-school programs, and a longer school year.

Earlier, in signing the budget Aug. 21, Gov. Wilson used his line-item veto to erase $457 million in school aid. Ultimately, he agreed to restore $105 million for remediation and, in a separate action, the Republican governor signed a bill that would put a $9.2 billion education bond on the state's November ballot.

"The next round of investments not only keeps us on course, it moves California closer to a world-class education system defined by the three R's of results, responsibility, and return on investment," Mr. Wilson said during the budget-signing ceremony.

Student Accountability

Currently, California's 1,000 school districts must have policies on promoting or retaining students. The new plan would continue to offer school systems flexibility in such decisions, but it would require them to base promotion in grades 2-9 on how students scored on either the state's basic-skills tests or on their classroom studies. The term "social promotion" refers to allowing pupils to advance to the next grade before they have mastered grade-level skills.

The state school board, which would set the passing marks on the state exam, first must align the test with state standards in English and mathematics. That may take two years, officials concede.

The new promotion policy would contain an escape hatch for students whose teachers argue in writing against retention and recommend appropriate remedial help. The budget provides $115 million for remedial programs, such as summer school and tutoring. Some critics argue, however, that that would be not be enough if more than 250,000 students a year are held back, as state officials estimate.

"This is saying we are not going to move students forward who have not achieved a certain level of competency in that grade level," said Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni, the Democrat who chairs the education committee in the legislature's lower house. "It is really quite serious."

Delaware, South Carolina, and Wisconsin also have passed laws this year that tie student promotion, at least in part, to state assessments. While research is mixed on the impact that retention has on students, few studies have delved into what happens when retention policies are combined with aggressive remediation.

Lorrie Shepard, a professor of research methodology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said that her often-cited research on retention found that students received few academic benefits from being held back. And while remediation may help, she added, it probably doesn't offset the negative effects of being kept in the same grade.

"People assume, without evidence, that [retention] will get students to try harder," Ms. Shepard said. "But it could make some give up."

Besides, she said, retention policies implicitly blame students for their plight. "Many students are trying hard, but have bad teaching and that's why they don't learn to read," Ms. Shepard said.

Mr. Wilson has pledged to veto a separate school accountability bill passed by lawmakers. That plan would provide $50 million in grants to 250 of the state's most troubled schools. To qualify, however, the schools would have to volunteer for state reviews of their operations.

In a letter to its sponsors, Mr. Wilson called the bill a "toothless proposal" that would reward low-performing schools.

Ms. Mazzoni, who was on the legislative conference committee that wrote the plan, agrees with Mr. Wilson that schools need more monitoring. "You're going to hold a student back in a school where there's no accountability for the quality of the program," she said.

Generous Budget

Most state leaders and educators seem to agree, meanwhile, that the new California budget is full of needed school spending. Its highlights include:

  • $45 million to help districts cap the size of 9th grade classes in English and one other subject at 22 students. The state board has until Oct. 12 to draw up rules for the initiative. The plan would expand on California's popularK-3 class-size-reduction program.
  • $195 million under a requirement that schools offer at least 180 instructional days a year. The money will allow schools to provide three days of staff training outside the school year. Previously, California required 180 days per school year but allowed eight nonpupil days.
  • $250 million in new funding for districts for instructional materials aligned to new state standards. An additional $230 million in the budget covers library materials and science-laboratory equipment.
  • $50 million in first-time aid earmarked for K-9 after-school programs in low-income communities.


While the budget reflects several priorities shared by Mr. Wilson and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, it also underscores their policy divisions.

Perhaps most telling was Mr. Wilson's veto of $8 million from the state education department's "executive management" budget. The governor, who will step down in January after serving two terms, said he was urging the legislature to transfer the department's legal staff to another state agency to increase efficiency and avoid conflicts of interest.

Ms. Eastin, a Democrat who is up for re-election in November, called the move a payback for her efforts to break away from some legal positions adopted by the gubernatorially appointed state school board.

Vol. 18, Issue 1, Pages 1, 33

Published in Print: September 9, 1998, as Calif. Targets K-12 'Social Promotions'
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Web Resources
  • Read excerpts from Gov. Wilson's State of the State address, concerning his priorities for K-12 education spending.
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