Promotions -- in slower motion

July 18, 1995

If the reform of public education were an event at a school "field day," it wouldn't be a relay race so much as an often unruly tug-of-war. Conservatives yank one way. Liberals another. Teachers' unions exert muscle pull against administrators. Parents are in there tugging in many directions, too.

But one proposal behind which consensus will likely queue up rapidly is the state school board's idea to drop the student promotion rate from its list of criteria for measuring school performance.

The creep in promotion rates ever since the state instituted its school performance program five years ago has not been universally embraced as a show of great improvement. Rather, many observers see the promotion proliferation as merely a case of schools giving the boss what it wants. The schools can't fudge test results or attendance statistics, but they have broader discretion on how many children go to the next grade. Promotions and reading at the high school level were the only areas where schools statewide achieved "excellent" ratings in 1993-94.

Baltimore's school promotions, for example, jumped much faster than test scores -- from a rate of 91 percent in 1991-92 to 97 percent in 1993-94, the largest increase in Maryland; that's one indication that educators were injudiciously propelling kids through the system. Statewide, 99 percent of elementary schoolers were promoted in the 1993-94 school year, compared to 97.5 percent in 1991-92. The proclivity to promote as many students as possible was especially injurious at the elementary level, since it is easier socially for a child to repeat a grade at a younger age, and problems get compounded later as the school work gets harder.

Some in the state education hierarchy did originally question the emphasis on the promotion rate. But at the time, no tests existed to measure the elementary schools. Also, promotions were one of the 200 measurements considered for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program that could be gauged statewide and that were not beholden to the vagaries of the state budget.

With several years of performance testing at the elementary schools, plus attendance and other data, the state no longer needs to seek, and thus tweak, promotion records. While some local education observers have been complaining about this directive for years, the state school board should be commended for rethinking a possible good intention gone sour.

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