Extra Instruction Helps Boston Students Make the Grade

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Boston's $21 million, full-court press to help low-performing students in grades 3, 6, and 9 is showing promise, a report by the district concludes.

As part of what the Boston school district calls its transition program, struggling students in those key transitional grades were given up to 15 months of extra help, including longer class periods in English and mathematics, specialized teaching, and up to two years of summer school. ("Boston Swaps Flunking for 'Transition' Grades," March 17, 1999.)

The program, started in the summer of 1999, showed results for the first students to have participated, an analysis released last month by the 64,000-student district shows. Students in the program often passed benchmark reading and arithmetic tests at nearly the same rate as their peers who were not in the transition program.

For example, 72 percent of the 6,854 students in grades 3, 6, and 9 who were in the program passed the English/language arts exams needed to move on to the next grade—exactly the same rate as that of their higher-achieving peers who were not identified for the special help.

Since 1998, Boston has joined several other school systems in trying to rein in social promotion, the automatic advancement of students to the next grade based on age.

Promising Results

The problem with such policies, Boston Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant said in an interview, is that students who are simply held back are not likely to reach grade level and are at greater risk of dropping out.

"The conventional approach to retention and social promotion hasn't been successful," he said. "This [transitional program] is designed to take our lowest-performing students in these grades and give them more time, quality instruction, and support to accelerate their achievement."

Thomas W. Payzant

Mr. Payzant explained that a rising 2nd grader who is identified for retention in the spring, for example, may get twice the normal amount of instruction in core subjects, take part in after-school tutoring before the end of the year, and then attend summer school.

If the student is unable to pass the tests needed for promotion at the end of summer school, he or she moves to 3rd grade, but continues to get the transitional help for another year.

Students who pass the benchmark exams at the end of summer school advance to the next grade and may or may not receive additional help, depending on the availability of resources at their schools, the superintendent said.

Ultimately, he said, the students should be better prepared to pass Massachusetts' new high school exit exams in 2003.

"In some middle and high schools, there are enough students that you can have an entire class in math that would be a transitional-service class," Mr. Payzant said.

Unfortunately, he added, the city can afford to offer the program only in the three grades, at least for now. All of the students who score at the lowest levels on tests are admitted to the program.

After just one year, the district is pleased with much of what it sees. In the 9th grade, transition-program students actually surpassed their peers who were not judged to need extra help, passing at a 71 percent rate, compared with 63 percent.

The results were more mixed in mathematics. In 3rd grade, transition students passed at a rate of 75 percent, compared with 80 percent for their peers in regular classes. In the 9th grade, 46 percent of the program participants passed math, compared with 55 percent of students in regular classes.

Jo-Ann Gayhart's 15-year-old daughter was put in the transition program last spring. Ms. Gayhart wishes that the intervention, which included smaller classes and summer school, had been sooner.

Still, she said, the program helped her daughter overcome low test scores and move to 9th grade.

"She's kind of bright, but it became more important for her to be popular than to do her schoolwork," Ms. Gayhart said. "She said that this taught her a lesson."

Vol. 20, Issue 5, Page 11

Published in Print: October 4, 2000, as Extra Instruction Helps Boston Students Make the Grade
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