Failing pupils targeted by state

Proposal would force 8th-graders to school in summer or not pass

`Social promotion' ending

June 30, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Putting an end to "social promotion," the state school board would require low-performing Maryland eighth-graders to attend summer school or be barred from entering high school under a sweeping plan proposed yesterday.

State educators said perhaps half of the 62,000 students entering seventh grade this fall could end up in mandatory summer school in two years.

"The rite of passage to go to high school without showing some basic skills and effort is coming to an end in Maryland," said Richard J. Steinke, deputy state superintendent for school improvement.

The proposal comes as state educators prepare to put in place a series of new high school exams in English, U.S. government, math and other subjects that all students -- beginning with the Class of 2005 -- will be required to pass to receive their diplomas.

In addition to creating a safety net of early help for students, the plan calls for major improvements to teacher training as well as an expansion of public and private prekindergarten learning opportunities.

"There is no simple remedy if you want to help," said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan Washington group dedicated to school reform. "You have to think about changing the whole system of education."

If approved by the state board in October, the statewide,prekindergarten through 12th-grade effort would be the first such plan in the country, national education experts said yesterday.

State board members demanded in January 1998 that such a plan be developed before the start of the tests, and most embraced the general direction of the plan yesterday as a critical step toward improving student achievement. Their biggest concern was finding ways to secure enough money to help local school systems execute the changes.

"We need to show that it is better to spend the few dollars we require than to leave it unspent and pay the consequences later on with lost lives," said state board member Morris C. Jones.

The plan presented yesterday was developed by a committee of state, local and national educators, parents and community representatives in partnership with the Pew Forum, a part of the Pew Charitable Trusts. After revisions next month, the plan will be distributed across the state in August for public comment before the board's decision in the fall.

The most prominent feature of the proposal is the summer school requirement, which state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said "will end social promotion."

Beginning at the end of the 2000-2001 school year, eighth-graders who are behind in reading and math would be required to attend summer school. Students who completed the summer program but were still behind would be allowed to enter high school but would have individual plans designed to give them extra help.

Students who refused to attend the summer programs would not be allowed to enter ninth grade and would instead be forced to attend some kind of alternative pro- gram until they achieved the required reading and math skills.

Even as local school systems race to prepare the first class of Maryland students for the new high school exams, state educators said the latest test data suggest that about half of the students about to enter seventh grade will fall short of meeting standards when they enter ninth grade.

The draft proposal estimates it might cost $9 million just to pay teachers for a 20-day summer school program with class sizes of 15 students per teacher.

"We will still have a tremendous number of students in eighth grade who we would expect would need extra assistance," said Robert C. Rice, assistant state superintendent for research and development.

To reach low-performing students before they get to eighth grade, the proposal directs local school systems to monitor progress at the end of third-, fifth- and seventh grades, requiring students who are behind to get extra instruction either through after-school help or summer school.

"If everything in the plan is done as the committee proposed it, we'll be a heck of a lot better off when the exams begin," said Marshall Peterson, principal of Oakland Mills High School in Columbia.

The new high school exams -- the final major piece of Maryland's decade-long school reform effort -- will shift accountability from schools to individual students. The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams taken by all third-, fifth- and eighth-graders are designed to give grades to schools and systems, not students.

The plan presented to the school board yesterday also includes a series of steps to improve teacher quality, as state educators said it is unfair to hold students accountable unless they are taught by qualified teachers.

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