Assessment

Houston Shifts on High School Promotion

By Catherine Gewertz — April 21, 2004 4 min read
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A little more than a year after mandating that high school students pass core academic subjects in each grade in order to be promoted to the next grade, the Houston school board has decided instead to require that students complete all core courses by the time they graduate.

The board’s unanimous, preliminary approval of the new policy on April 8 sparked angry reactions in some quarters. Some board members were deluged with e-mail, typified by one message that referred to the change as contributing to “the dumbing down of America.”

District leaders were quick to defend the policy, which will be considered for final board approval next month.

“We are in no way lowering standards,” said Dianne Johnson, the first vice president of the nine-member school board. “All the standards for passing the required courses, all the accountability measures we have here in Texas, remain firmly in place.”

The change was designed to address the 210,000- student district’s high dropout rate, which has come in for heightened scrutiny after revelations that inappropriate data management had kept dropout rates artificially low at some schools.(“Houston Case Offers Lesson on Dropouts,” Sept. 24, 2003.)

Encouragement Needed

A state-appointed monitor and a district-level review committee tapped to look into the dropout rate have suggested that the district reconsider any policy that discourages students from completing school.

Superintendent Kaye Stripling concluded that the district’s February 2003 decision to require high school students to complete each grade’s core courses before being promoted was such a policy.

“It doesn’t make sense to keep a child back until he is 17 or 18 years old because he passed all his subjects except one,” she said in a statement. “A student sitting in the 9th grade at age 17 is a kid who is going to say, ‘Forget this, I’m dropping out.’ And Houston can’t afford to lose its children that way.”

Houston’s evolving approach reflects the struggles of policymakers and school administrators nationally to ascertain the best way of ensuring that high school students meet high standards and complete their education.

National experts praised the planned change for recognizing students’ individual pace and needs, and for adding flexibility that enables them to stay with their peer group while making up the courses they failed. But they cautioned that the success of the approach will turn on how closely schools monitor struggling students and how well they deliver needed academic help.

“Houston is going to have to have very strong catch-up systems,” said Gene Bottoms, who has overseen research on effective secondary education for the High Schools That Work program of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board. “It will take a concerted, full-court press to get these students to standards.”

The district has pledged to use federal Title I money to pay for summer school, online courses, and other help for students making up courses they failed.

In the past, Houston had promoted high school students the way most districts do: by whether they had enough credit hours to move to the next grade.

The district changed the policy last year in an attempt to ensure that no student fell too far behind during high school, and to help freshmen prepare to take the state-mandated 10th grade exit exam. More than four in 10 of Houston’s freshmen are over age. Some observers have accused the district of holding them back disproportionately so ill-prepared students didn’t take the exit exam.

Aligning With Tests

Under the system adopted in 2003, freshmen, for instance, had to earn passing grades in all core academic subjects, such as English, mathematics, science, and history, to be classified as sophomores.

If they did not, they repeated the failed 9th grade courses while moving on to 10th grade-level work in courses they had completed, but they were still officially classified as freshmen, said Abelardo Saavedra, the district’s executive deputy superintendent for school support services.

Under that system, many students remained classified as freshmen for two or more years, putting them at greater risk of dropping out, he said.

Texas replaced its testing system, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS, with the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, last spring, and changed the intervals at which it was given during the K-12 years. Now, high school students must take the TAKS in both 9th and 10th grades, as well as pass a TAKS exit exam in 11th or 12th grade.

Given that change in testing intervals, it made sense for Houston to adopt a policy that moved students through the system with their age peers while still ensuring they were completing the required academic work, said Mr. Saavedra. That way, he said, each class takes the TAKS that reflects the coursework of that year, and students have the chance to take both tests before tackling the exit exam, he said.

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