Georgia children who enter 3rd grade in 2003 would have to pass a state reading test to be promoted to the next grade, and 5th and 8th graders would face similar requirements in later years, under a bill passed by the state Senate last week.
The legislation—the centerpiece of Gov. Roy E. Barnes’ education agenda this year—would be the first step toward reaching his goal of wiping out social promotion in the state in five years. The policy change passed the House of Representatives earlier this month, and as of late last week, a conference committee of legislators from both chambers was attempting to put finishing touches on a final version of the measure.
Starting in 2004, 5th graders would have to pass both the reading and mathematics portions of Georgia’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, or CRCT, to advance to the next grade, as would 8th graders beginning in 2005, under the legislation.
If the bill becomes law, Georgia will join just a handful of states that use—or are planning to use—state tests to determine whether children should be promoted or held back a grade. Such policies are aimed at squelching the practice of promoting academically lagging students to keep them with their age groups.
“No one wants to have to make the decision to hold a child back,” the Democratic governor said last month when he introduced his education bill. “But promoting a child who is not ready to move on can put them even further behind and make schools’ and teachers’ jobs more difficult than they already are.”
Under the proposed Georgia Academic Placement and Promotion Policy, children who didn’t pass a test on the first try would have another opportunity to take it. Students who failed to attain passing scores on the second try would be able to appeal to three-member promotion/retention committees composed of their schools’ principals, one of their parents, and one of their classroom teachers. Students would be promoted only if the vote from the committee was unanimous.
“This is a major win for classroom teachers,” said Ralph B. Noble, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “For the first time in my career, I’ll have the power to say that a child should be retained.”
He added that another key piece of the legislation is that a school that decided to retain a child would have to demonstrate how the school was going to address the child’s academic weaknesses. The same would hold true for students who were promoted after the appeals process. Schools would have to show how they were going to help those students master the skills they lacked.
“That is a tremendous victory for children,” Mr. Noble added.
Plan Stirs Controversy
Gov. Barnes’ plan also drew a considerable amount of criticism, however, from groups that argued the social-promotion provisions of the bill would be anything but a victory for some children.
At public hearings, organizations representing minorities and poor people said that African-American, Hispanic, and other minority students would be treated unfairly under the proposed system because they historically have not done well on standardized tests. Officials of those groups said they were worried that such children would not get the help they needed to pass the tests.
“We think this bill is an awful piece of legislation,” said Brian Kintisch, the executive director of the Center for Children and Education, a nonprofit advocacy group in Macon, Ga. “It’s frustrating to have that Draconian approach coming from the governor’s office.”
And state schools Superintendent Linda C. Schrenko, who has opposed many of Gov. Barnes’ proposals since he took office two years ago, agrees.
“There are going to be a lot of minorities, and a lot of English-as-a- second-language kids, staying back,” said Ms. Schrenko, a Republican.
According to the results of the CRCT, which was given for the first time last spring, 77 percent of the ESL students and 54 percent of the black students tested did not receive passing scores, Ms. Schrenko said.
The superintendent said she favors ending social promotion, but instead had proposed an alternative plan that would require schools to consider a variety of measures of student achievement instead of one test score.
“A child’s school year is a minimum of 180 days,” she said. “One day out of 180 shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of a child’s life.”
Critics of the new bill say they are also worried that children who were held back would be denied due process, since the legislation appears to make the appeals committee’s decision final. Mr. Kintisch said he believes the issue would end up in court.
“You can’t deny a parent the right to go to their school board if there is a legal question over retention,” he said.
But supporters of the governor’s plan say that the opponents are mischaracterizing the bill, and that the appeals process gives school districts the flexibility to consider all indicators of a child’s performance.
“We think that there may be circumstances where the child needs to be passed on even if they haven’t passed the test,” said Tom Upchurch, the president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit organization that pushes for higher standards.
Chances To Improve
Supporters also say they believe Gov. Barnes’ approach would give students who were struggling the extra help they needed to improve. And while tests given before 3rd grade won’t be used for promotion decisions, they are intended to give educators information about which students need attention, defenders of the plan say.
Last year’s school improvement law created an early-intervention program, which sets the teacher-pupil ratio at 1-to-11 in the primary grades for children who are performing below grade level.
In addition, the A-Plus Education Reform Act of 2000 provided 20 extra days of instruction for the 10 percent of a school’s enrollment deemed to need the most help. Those days can be used for summer school, after-school programs, and Saturday classes.
This year, the governor recommended $327 million for the early-intervention program, which includes $82 million to extend it to grades 4 and 5.
This year’s bill also says that the 10 percent of students chosen to receive 20 more days of instruction could be drawn from the entire pool of students districtwide, as the district saw fit, rather than drawing 10 percent of each individual school.
While that change would give districts more flexibility, Mr. Noble said he believes that in some systems, the percentage of children served by the program needs to increase.
“We think some districts, like Atlanta, will need a high-priority designation,” the teachers’ association president said.
To address the concerns raised during the hearings, the Senate approved a last-minute amendment, sponsored by Sen. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat. The amendment would mandate that schools provide the early- intervention program and identify children needing help as early in the school year as possible—and not wait until after the results of the first test.
While Mr. Kintisch described Mr. Scott’s amendment as a “breakthrough,” he said he still hoped to see more changes in the legislation during the conference committee’s deliberations.
A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Social-Promotion Ban Advances In Georgia