Passing a grade getting tougher

Baltimore schools ready to abolish social promotion Vote scheduled for tonight Without satisfactory grades, test results, pupil could not pass

October 12, 1999|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun Staff

Thousands of Baltimore's public school children would be at risk of being held back if the school board votes tonight, as expected, to set tougher standards for elementary and middle schoolers to be promoted from one grade to the next.

School administrators will recommend to the board that it require pupils in grades one through eight to score at least 70 percent on a reading and math test created by the district and to have satisfactory grades before being promoted.

Eighth-graders would also have to pass functional tests in reading, math and writing before they could go on to high school.

The new standards, which would put an end to social promotion, wouldn't take effect until the fall of 2000 and then only if a series of programs are in place to help struggling children catch up.

School board officials are expected to discuss the matter and vote at tonight's board meeting, which begins at 5:30 p.m. at the administrative headquarters at Calvert Street and North Avenue.

The city's chief academic officer, Betty Morgan, said the school system will "no longer look the other way, and say, 'Yes, we know our kids are below grade level, but we are going to pass them anyway.' "

For years, showing up for class was about all a Baltimore schoolchild needed to do to be promoted to the next grade.

The result was that in some high schools, the majority of entering ninth-graders read at a fourth-grade level and still struggled to multiply and divide.

About half of the city's elementary- and middle-schoolers scored below the national average in math and reading on the most recent national standardized tests. The test scores indicate that a large percentage of students would have to receive intensive tutoring, summer school or other help in order to catch up.

"We have to balance our approach to ending social promotion to make sure we have systems in place to support the children," said Frank Whorley, a former city school principal who is heading a task force studying the issue.

Many large urban school systems, such as Chicago, established higher passing standards for their students several years ago. Baltimore is the only school system in the state that does not have such a policy in place.

But school officials are approaching the issue with caution.

They are recommending that the policy not take effect until next fall -- possibly later -- and they warn that giving students the help they need to catch up could be expensive. They would also give principals the power to decide

whether a child is promoted.

Whorley's task force will decide what strategies are best to help failing children. School officials say they are considering whether to offer pre-kindergarten and require full-day kindergarten in every elementary school. Many schools have kindergarten programs for only a half-day.

School administrators might recommend that students who fail to meet the standards be required to attend summer school. Students who make up ground during the summer could move to the next grade; those who fail would be placed in transitional classes to keep them from repeating the same grade. The students would then get a second chance to move on to the next grade if they could catch up in the first eight weeks of the school year.

The transitional class approach is being used in 19 of the city's lowest-performing elementary schools. The school system reported that about 50 percent of the students who took summer school were able to catch up and move on.

Jeffery Grotsky, the administrator in charge of those schools, said the new standards for sec

ond-and fourth-graders have helped average students as well. Third-and fifth-grade teachers are reporting that they move more quickly through their lessons when all the children in their classes have mastered the previous grade, Grotsky said.

Morgan said she wants the school system to develop a bag of tools that can be used to help each student who falls behind. Some children, she said, don't learn to read using the usual approaches and require teachers to use new strategies.

School administrators said they will ask for public comment from parents and the public as they consider how to implement the new policy. They said they expect some parents to be concerned about the new standards.

Latrina Boone, the mother of third-grader Haywood Boone and fifth-grader Ashante Boone at Tench Tilghman Elementary School, faced the prospect this summer that both her children would be held back.

She said she believed her children needed time to catch up. They attended five weeks of summer school.

"They felt fearful at first be

cause they didn't know if they would go to the next grade," Boone said. But she said that fear also motivated her children to work hard and read every day.

Both were able to move on with the rest of their class this year. Her son received an award last week for having read 50 books since school started.

If passed, the new standards would become part of a larger plan to reform the city schools that began a little over two years ago when the schools were taken over by a city-state partnership.

Many of the initiatives -- including new textbooks and an emphasis on small class sizes and a return to phonics-based reading instruction -- have been focused on the early grades.

But Morgan said setting standards throughout the system and developing a system for all students to get help is needed.

"The policy says that we will expect high standards from our students," Morgan said. "This is not a cure, but a consequence of the fact that many of our students are performing below standards."

Before the standards can take effect, the city schools will have to develop a test to measure whether students have mastered lessons taught in the city curriculum. Morgan said she expects those to be in place for kindergarten through 12th grade in the next year.

Pub Date: 10/12/99

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