Texas Moves Ahead on Social-Promotion Curb

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It was one of his major re-election themes last fall. Then, he called for it again in his January State of the State Address. And, now, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas is a step closer to curbing social promotion, or the practice of advancing students in grade before they master grade-level skills.

The Senate's 16 Republicans and 15 Democrats voted unanimously last month for a bill that would require students in grades 3, 5, and 8 to pass state tests in reading and mathematics before they could be promoted to the next grade.

The proposal, which includes $200 million for remedial programs and teacher training, is expected to get closer scrutiny this week when it goes to the Democratic-controlled House. But that hasn't quelled the enthusiasm of the governor, who made the rare gesture of visiting the Senate floor immediately after the Feb. 18 vote to thank lawmakers.

''Today the Senate sent a strong message that no child will be left behind in our state," he told reporters gathered there.

If Texas passes its social-promotion bill, it will be the fifth state in a year to link promotion to state tests. California, Delaware, South Carolina, and Wisconsin ratified such policies last year.

But because Gov. Bush would be a leading presidential contender if he joins the 2000 race for the Republican nomination as many are urging him to do, what Texas does on social promotion could spur further national interest.

"If he becomes a candidate, every time he turns around and mentions [social promotion], it will get lots of exposure," said Chris Pipho, a spokesman for the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based clearinghouse on education issues. "That could make a big difference."

Texas Model

The plan promised by Mr. Bush and crafted into a bill by Republican Sen. Teel Bivins would focus on pupils in kindergarten through 2nd grade for reading assessments and remediation, beginning next year. Teachers in those grades would also receive stipends to attend reading academies to help them identify and address reading problems.

By the 2002-03 school year, 3rd graders would have three chances to earn at least 70 percent on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills exam before being required to repeat the grade. Fifth graders would have to pass reading and writing exams in 2005-06. By the time those students reached the 8th grade, they would have to pass reading, math, and writing tests.

Sen. Bivins added a provision to the bill that would allow a panel composed of a student's parents, teachers, and principal to override the retention rule with a unanimous vote.

The lawmaker said in an interview that a current law requiring students to be promoted only if they are academically ready doesn't work.

For example, while 42,000 of the 220,000 3rd graders who took the 1996-97 TAAS exam failed, 38,000 of them were still promoted.

"The bill sets a standard," Mr. Bivins said. "If you are not able to pass the 3rd, 5th, and 8th grade TAAS, you won't go to the next level."

The bill's opponents are planning a media campaign against it on the grounds that it is unfair to minority students, who already fail the state tests at a higher rate than their white peers.

"We're firmly against the use of any test as a sole or independent criterion that can deny a student the right to be promoted," said Al Kauffman, a regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Mr. Kauffman, who works out of the group's San Antonio office, argued that there are not enough bilingual teachers to meet the needs of students with limited English skills. As a result, he said, even strong students could suffer setbacks and ultimately drop out for failing a single test.

He expressed doubt that the proposed review committees would be an adequate safeguard. "There will be a presumption based on the test that a student shouldn't move forward," Mr. Kauffman said. "The burden is on the parent to ask for the meeting. A lot won't even try it."

John Cole, the president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, countered that the bill would "revolutionize education in Texas."

"Schools since the dawn of time have been ignoring students who are failing," said Mr. Cole, whose union is the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "This bill will actually force them to deal with this problem early in a child's career."

Interest Elsewhere

The Lone Star State is not alone in seeking to end social promotion.

Legislators in Arizona, Connecticut, and Florida are also debating bills to ban social promotion, at least in certain grades.

A committee on academic accountability in the Arizona House approved a bill late last month that would retain 3rd and 8th graders who failed state tests beginning in spring 2000. But depending on the tests' cutoff mark, some observers there worry about an increase in class sizes and a greater potential for dropouts.

"There will be a lot of collateral damage," said David Krueger, the director of planning and assessment for the 62,000-student Tucson, Ariz., schools.

President Clinton is also on the stop-social-promotion bandwagon.

In his plan for reauthorizing the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, due out this month, Mr. Clinton will seek to require states to have plans to end social promotion before they can receive certain types of federal school aid.

In an interview at the National Governors' Association conference in Washington last week, Gov. Bush said he welcomes the president's interest in the issue.

But if Mr. Clinton tries to tell states how to retain or pass students, the Texas governor will be less enthusiastic. "In Texas," Mr. Bush declared, "we can come up with our own way to end social promotion."

Vol. 18, Issue 25, Pages 26, 32

Published in Print: March 3, 1999, as Texas Moves Ahead on Social-Promotion Curb
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