Why Johnny Can't Read in Grade 6

July 18, 1995

One of the searing images of Nathaniel Hurt's murder trial last spring came when attorneys questioned one of the youths present the night that 13-year old Vernon Holmes was shot dead.

The boy told the court that he couldn't read for the jury the statement he'd given police because he cannot read or write. In response to an attorney's question, he recognized the letters C-U-T, but could not decipher the word they spelled.

The boy was in sixth grade in the Baltimore City Public Schools.

While the city school system failed to meet practically all the goals in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, one of two areas where it did merit a satisfactory grade was in elementary school promotions. (That category doesn't include high schoolers, such as the 300 students at East Baltimore's Patterson High who were recently informed that they were mistakenly promoted to the next grade due to a data entry error.) In fact, many underachieving schools throughout Maryland cleared the bar on promoting elementary schoolers.

Something is wrong with this picture.

Members of the Maryland State Board of Education have finally reached this realization, too. They are expected to vote soon on excising the elementary school promotion rate from the criteria it uses to judge schools come 1996-97.

That would be a change for the better. The nudge in the state promotion rate from 97.5 percent in 1991-92 to 99 percent in 1993-94 (including the most dramatic increase in Baltimore) indicates that principals were erring on the side of promoting children to meet the state standard.

Making children repeat a grade is not a decision to be made lightly. But it is also a uniquely individual decision that seems to have been politicized by the larger issue of holding schools accountable.

The State Department of Education says it has realized this for a while and did not weigh the promotion rate in deciding which schools to "reconstitute," or take over.

Nevertheless, an official change in that policy is needed because it telegraphs the wrong message: While endeavoring to make its schools more accountable, the state's promotion emphasis somehow made the students less so. "You can't read or write? Don't worry, you're promoted."

Some detours on the road to education reform have a simpler time finding consensus then others. This one, alas, should be as easy as C-U-T.

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