Promotion test puts burden on children

October 14, 1999|By Michael Olesker

MAYBE A LIGHT goes on in classrooms across the city now. Maybe, after three decades of academic catastrophe, the public schools make good on the promise to prepare children for productive lives. Maybe it's part of the grand anticipated rebirth of life in the city.

Maybe, and maybe, and maybe.

Two nights ago, the Baltimore school board voted unanimously to set new promotion standards for children in grades one through eight. No more pushing kids along just to salvage the last remaining nerve endings of emotionally tapped-out teachers. No more promoting kids whose chief academic skill is dribbling a substitute teacher across a playground.

In suburban county households where thousands move each year to avoid the city schools, there were parents who saw this story in yesterday's newspaper and said, "Right. Changing standards one more time." It felt like a reminder, or a congratulatory telegram, on why they'd pulled up roots and fled the city in the first place.

"We can't ignore the fact that this system has failed students for years," Tyson Tildon, president of the city school board, told The Sun's Liz Bowie. "We are trying to reverse the clock."

Tildon got the first part right, but the second will be tougher. The system's failure is written in kids' dreadful reading and math scores, and in the dropout rate, and in the adult lives of all those who graduate and discover to their eternal dismay that they haven't actually been prepared to compete in the real world.

To continue such practice, Tildon said, would be "cruel."

Thank you, Tyson Tildon, for confirming the obvious: For years, the city's public schools have cheated children, sold their parents a bill of goods, and contributed mightily to the city's overall decay by claiming to deliver an education, instead of a charade.

Thus, today's question: Have they only started a new game, or is this the signal of something wonderful finally happening?

The new policy requires pupils not only to pass their classroom courses but to score 70 percent each year on a locally written test. Notice the word "locally."

In the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, only 16 percent of city pupils meet state standards in grades three, five and eight, and only 50 percent of eighth-graders passed the state's functional math test.

By bringing in one more test -- this, to draw a definitive line between passing and failing -- the schools are declaring: No more "social promotion." That's a kind of unofficial phrase, often whispered furtively, about kids who are passed not because they can read and write, but because their bodies are growing, and if left behind, they will tower over their classmates (and teachers) and in their frustration may act out in socially unfortunate ways.

The new school board decision says such matters are secondary. These kids must be held back until they can pass the annual test, because they have to learn basic skills to make productive lives for themselves.

Which raises a few obvious questions:

n Will we have kids spending 27 years in the fifth grade?

n Do we have teachers who could pass such a test?

A nasty question, of course, but it leads us into uncomfortable thoughts about the new testing: Are we about to penalize kids for the failures of grown-ups?

The test lays all responsibility on the children. It says nothing about teachers who consistently produce academic failures, or the conditions that lead to such teachers: overcrowded classes, outdated books, plus children who enter class each day without the slightest parental help, haven't slept enough the night before, haven't eaten properly that morning, and have never had someone in their lives explain that there are connections between the things that go on in classrooms and the ability to create the good life for themselves.

In last summer's City Hall campaign, the defeated Democratic mayoral candidate, Carl Stokes, talked frankly about the need for an extended school day, where role-model adults could talk to children not only about academics but about lifestyle problems never addressed at home -- because, in too many cases, there are no fathers at home and the mothers have too many of their own problems.

Stokes asked, what's our rush to send these kids back onto the streets every afternoon? Why can't we embrace them for a few more hours and make the most of such time? Why can't we fill in the blanks in their lives -- the lack of parental figures, the absence of nonacademic training?

Those questions are still valid.

It's healthy that the city school board wants to stop this destructive notion of social promotion and confirm that real academic standards exist. But, in the absence of so many other changes -- from overburdened teachers to inattentive parents -- are we laying it all on the kids, and setting them up for one more failure?

Pub Date: 10/14/99

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