Summer class advised for up to 50% in city

Tougher standards snag as many as 46,000 kids

`Very disheartening number'

Russo sees rate as result of social promotion's end

May 29, 2002|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Baltimore public school officials say one-third to one-half of students are failing to meet tougher passing standards and will be asked to attend summer school.

Between 35,000 and 46,000 students are in jeopardy. The exact number is unknown because some failing students might improve their grades in the fourth quarter.

"It is a lot of students," acknowledged city school chief Carmen V. Russo. "I think this was the natural progression of a promotion policy that has a lot of teeth to it."

Two years ago, the city school board voted to end the practice of social promotion. Last summer, 28,000 students took summer classes, but officials said standards weren't applied consistently and the number should have been higher. The board voted in the fall to tighten standards, requiring all students to get passing grades and elementary and middle school children to score at least at the 23rd percentile on national standardized tests.

Russo said she was not surprised by the large numbers and expects that to continue for several years, as the system overhauls its middle and high schools.

In March, the end of the third quarter, parents were notified whether their children were in danger of failing for the year. This week, elementary and middle school parents will receive a letter informing them whether their children have received passing scores on the standardized test.

The school system is preparing to spend $17 million to teach summer school, $3 million more than last year.

Large cities around the country have begun instituting similar passing standards. Chicago, New York and Washington have all held back large numbers of children and required them to attend summer school. But perhaps none has had such a large percentage.

"If it reaches" 50 percent, "that would be the highest we have ever seen for any big city system," said Henry Duvall, director of communications for the Council of Great City Schools.

Despite the large number of failing students, some experts see good news in the fact that the school system has ended the practice of automatically promoting children.

"You have a very disheartening number of children going to summer school, but it would be more disheartening if they were just being passed through the system," said Christopher Maher, education director for Advocates for Children and Youth, a Baltimore nonprofit organization.

Maher said he believes any large city school system that implemented similar passing standards would see similar failure rates. The challenge, he said, is for the school system to have a program that gives students extra help so they can catch up.

One issue for the system will be the higher teacher-student ratio this summer. For the past two years, children were taught in classes of 15 children. This year, with more students, the teacher-student ratio will grow to 1-to-20 or 1-to-25, depending on how many children attend summer school.

Russo said she doesn't believe the rise in class size will affect students' achievement.

But Maher said that a 1-to-25 teacher-to-student ratio, "if that's what it ends up being, is likely not to result in children learning at an accelerated pace."

Eighth-graders might have the highest failure rate in the system because the new standards require them to pass all three Maryland functional tests in reading, math and writing.

School officials estimate that 4,000 to 5,000 of the 7,000 eighth-graders might not advance to high school next fall.

Because many successful eighth-graders would be expected to attend the city's top academic high schools, the nine zoned or neighborhood high schools could end up with much smaller numbers of ninth-graders than they have today.

"It may very well be that you would have larger middle schools and smaller high schools ... depending on the number of passers," Russo said.

Summer school will run from June 24 to July 26 for elementary and middle school pupils. Elementary pupils will receive free breakfast and lunch and four hours of math and reading. On July 25 and July 26, children will take the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. If they receive a high enough score, they will move to the next grade.

Middle-schoolers will get a free lunch and can take the courses they failed as well as preparation for the Maryland Functional Tests, which will be given between July 17 and July 26.

For the first time, the school system is offering high school students free summer school, from June 24 to Aug. 2 for any class they failed. In the past, high school students had to pay a fee.

Because of the change, Russo said, the school system is having difficulty estimating how many students will take advantage of the opportunity.

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