Debate rages on holding students back Issue: Why do so many children arrive at their classrooms unprepared for high school work, and who is responsible?

July 21, 1996|By Elaine Woo | Elaine Woo,LOS ANGELES TIMES

UKIAH, Calif. -- It was, in too many ways, a bad year for the teachers of Ukiah High School.

For English teacher Pat Alto, it started in September with the discovery that several of her seniors could not construct a simple sentence.

For history teacher Philip Boynton, it was the F's he passed out to a dozen students, half of them freshmen, this spring.

In all, more than 40 percent of Ukiah's freshmen failed at least one course in the first quarter of the year, and 13 percent failed three or more. For the proud faculty of this distinguished Northern California school, it was too shocking to ignore.

Why, they asked with wearying frequency, were so many youths arriving in their classrooms unprepared for high school work?

The teachers believed they knew what to blame and decided to let this Mendocino County town know.

"The problem," 75 teachers wrote in a quarter-page ad published in the local newspaper, "is the inability of some schools to set and enforce academic and disciplinary standards."

In other words, Ukiah's junior high and elementary schools were passing students who could not read, write or compute at the appropriate level - a "terrifying problem," the teachers charged, that would destroy effective public education in their town.

In flinging the issue out for public scrutiny, the teachers stepped into a national debate over social promotion - advancing students on the basis of age and attendance, not achievement.

Although the practice isn't new - it has gone in and out of fashion for at least 60 years - the will to eradicate it has become a recurring feature of education reform in the past few years.

From agricultural towns such as Ukiah to urban centers such as Rochester, N.Y., Cincinnati, Chicago and Miami, districts have begun eliminating social promotions and strengthening teachers' and principals' authority to hold students back.

Attacking the policy has become politically correct. President Clinton urged governors at a recent education summit to mandate promotional tests.

But ending social promotions is not as simple as its critics make it sound. Few districts have consistent grading practices or clear goals for each grade level. Only five states - Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia - require students to pass a test to be promoted.

"What that means is that at the end of the year students get promoted, but based on what?" said Ruth Wattenberg, deputy director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers.

The debate also raises questions of accountability. Whose fault is it if a child has not mastered the skills and knowledge expected of him or her in a given year?

"Teachers have been crying for years and years that we don't want social promotion ... but it's not necessarily painless to come to grips with," said Tom Mooney, president of the teachers union in Cincinnati, where the school board voted in 1991 to abolish the practice. Social promotion, teachers complain, forces them to water down the curriculum and spend more time disciplining students who act up because they can't do the work.

Yet many educators fear the alternatives. The most controversial is retention - making students repeat the year they failed - which studies have shown increases chances they will drop out later.

Surveys suggest the practice of social promotion is widespread. One-third of 805 teachers polled nationwide by the American Federation of Teachers last year said at least 20 percent of their pupils should not have been promoted to their class; among urban teachers, 49 percent said they had students who had been socially promoted.

Schools are most inclined to hold a student back in the primary grades, when developmental differences strongly affect the pace at which young children learn.

At the heart of the Ukiah teachers' complaint is their contention that standards are too low at the district's junior high schools, where students are required to accrue only 18 credits out of a possible 28 to enter high school. That means a student could flunk nearly all of his or her eighth-grade courses and still advance. And many are arriving at Ukiah High with that bare minimum.

Raising that minimum is at the top of the high school teachers' demands. They also want to require junior high students to earn a passing grade in core classes, tighten summer school makeup policies and create a special school for those who flunk junior high.

The teachers' letter has caused hard feelings among Ukiah's educators. Administrators say it casts too harsh a light on the 6,000-student district, which still scores above average on state and national achievement tests. And, even though most agree that social promotion is a problem, elementary and junior high teachers say the letter unfairly blamed them for the lapse in standards.

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