Hold the line on social promotion

City schools: No room for lax standards when it comes to education reform.

January 24, 2002

OF ALL THE disservices inflicted upon Baltimore schoolchildren, social promotion ranks among the cruelest.

It's the reason you can walk into ninth-grade classrooms and listen to kids stumble and stammer over third-grade words. The reason basic math principles must be revisited in algebra courses. The reason a diploma from a city high school can't always be equated with knowledge or achievement.

We cheered two years ago when the city school board declared an end to social promotion and demanded that kids who fail make up their work in summer school or repeat a grade the next year.

Now the board seems to need further prodding to stay its new, tougher course on retention. Just beneath the current discussions over how to fine-tune the process of deciding who fails and who doesn't, you can hear murmured calls for relaxed standards.

Those pleas cannot be indulged.

Instead, board members must swiftly sort out the confusion over the policy and continue their push for tougher promotion standards. Those standards are the backbone of all the efforts to resurrect this city's moribund school system.

The retention policy is taking some heat right now because of a mistake that apparently allowed many failing children to go on to the next grade last year. It is also being questioned on practical grounds: If you hold back as many as a third of the system's students, where do you put them? Are grades the right measure of passing or failing, or should test scores govern the decision? How much leeway should individual teachers or principals have to override decisions to pass or fail a student?

The mistake probably can't be corrected, but the board should determine what caused it and make sure it doesn't happen again.

Answering the practical questions may require a thorough look at the policy and how it's being implemented. In particular, the standards used to determine student success or failure need to be made crystal clear and objective.

For our money, scores on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (which are based on a national standard) seem to make for better, inarguable benchmarks than grades (which are often inflated) or teacher and principal judgments (which can be clouded).

Whatever course the board chooses, we hope it keeps in mind the system's sorry history on this issue and the dire need for improvement. A return to any form of social promotion would spell disaster for education reform in this city - and for a lot of children who deserve much better.

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