Recruitment & Retention

Boston Swaps Flunking for ‘Transition’ Grades

By Debra Viadero — March 17, 1999 3 min read

Boston school leaders are creating three new “transition” grades to give a second chance to students who stand to flunk under the district’s tough new promotion policy.

Rather than hold back failing 2nd, 5th, and 8th graders for another year, the district plans to channel them into transition programs that could last up to 15 months. During that time, students would attend summer school sessions, take at least four extra hours of classes a week during the school year, and possibly go to school on Saturdays. If they improved their test scores enough by the end of the program, they would be promoted to the next grade without having suffered the stigma of retention.

When the Boston district stepped up its student-promotion standards last year, it joined a growing number of school systems declaring war on the practice of social promotion, which sends pupils to the next grade even though they are not academically prepared.

Many of those districts, such as Chicago and Houston, rely on mandatory summer school programs to give struggling students the boost they need to get back on track. Boston’s $21 million transition program goes somewhat further.

“It sounds like it’s being done with a vengeance and writ large,” said Karl Alexander, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who has studied issues of student retention.

Officials of the 64,000-student district said the aggressive stance was necessary.

“Time is passing for children, and the further they get behind, the more difficultit is to accelerate and close the gap,” schools Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant said last week.

The extra services, scheduled to start in the fall, are targeted to students who score at the lowest level on Massachusetts’ new statewide tests or on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition that the district now uses. Both tests are given in the spring.

Based on last year’s scores, administrators estimate that up to 71 percent of the district’s 8th graders and half its 5th graders might qualify for the new program. Students who have been retained at least once before will get first priority.

Doing It Differently

Across the country, the push to end social promotion has posed some new challenges for educators. In large part, that is because many studies show that simply holding students back a grade multiplies the likelihood that they will drop out of school altogether.

Besides summer school programs, some districts have tried to direct extra help to students who fail through special transition or “between-grade” classes. But some experts caution that those kinds of groupings can isolate and stigmatize students just as easily as flunking them.

Thomas W. Payzant

Boston’s plan, by comparison, is to have transition students attend classes, for the most part, with peers who are on grade level. In elementary school, specialists will come into classrooms to provide added literacy and math instruction. Pupils in those grades will get two hours a day of reading and writing instruction and one hour of mathematics.

In middle and high school, where larger numbers of students qualify for services, students will get double doses of language arts and math--a minimum of 80 minutes daily in each of those subjects.

Students could attend one--and maybe both--summer school sessions at each end of the school year, depending on how they fared on retesting. Mr. Payzant plans to ask Boston’s school board to require students to begin taking those four-week sessions as early as this summer.

“The major issue is that the quality of what we do can’t be the same as in the past,” Mr. Payzant said. “Summer school can’t be the same old summer school. The extra support during the school year can’t be what didn’t work the first time around.”

Drop-Off Points

Grades 3, 6, and 9 were selected for the program, district leaders said, because they mark key transition points in children’s schooling.

“In grade 3, national data indicate that if students are not reading at grade level, their ability to succeed in the future remains very minimal,” said Elizabeth Reilinger, the chairwoman of the Boston school board. In grades 6 and 9, children are respectively entering middle and high school--points when school performance typically starts to drop off.

To pay for the program, all schools will receive an extra $173 for every student in their buildings. Principals will also be required to supplement the funds with money from the federal Title I program for disadvantaged students or other program sources.

Even after 15 months of intensive help, some students may still fail to catch up with peers, school officials acknowledge. Those students would still have to take an extra year to graduate, just as if they had been held back.

A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 1999 edition of Education Week as Boston Swaps Flunking for ‘Transition’ Grades


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