How many times can a student be failed?

Baltimore schools grapple with social promotions for hundreds held back before

July 31, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Baltimore school officials announced three years ago that they were ending a long-standing practice of social promotion that had allowed failing students to advance to the next grade whether or not they had met the standards. The new policy was clear: Students would meet performance standards in each grade or be held back. No exceptions.

Now, faced with significant numbers of students being held back more than once, the city school system is backpedaling from that policy.

This year, more than 2,700 failing students in the city were promoted - more than half because they had been held back before, and school officials were leery of holding them back again.

Other failing students were promoted for a variety of reasons. In some cases there were extenuating circumstances, such as a death in the family or a parent being called up for the war in Iraq.

The problem of multiple retentions has become increasingly acute as the school district has enforced tougher promotion standards. Some struggling students have been held back two or three times.

And even though there is no school board policy saying what should happen to those who have been held back more than once, more than 1,500 such students were promoted this year.

Most of them were not invited to the school system's remedial summer school program - because it is only for those who are repeating a grade - but instead were given "summer learning packets" to help them catch up at home.

The solution is not ideal, school officials conceded, but it is the best they could come up with.

"These are not easy topics," said Cassandra W. Jones, the city school system's chief academic officer. "This is why you see the board really struggling with this."

School board member Sam Stringfield said the panel has been grappling for months with the question of what to do with students who have been retained more than once.

"It is very vexing," Stringfield said. "I don't think there's a perfect answer."

The issue is so thorny that the board has asked the State Department of Education to research the problem and suggest better ways to handle students who have been retained several times, while keeping the tough promotion policy intact.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has convened a task force of local and state school officials to study the issue.

"I don't support social promotion because I think it catches up with students," Grasmick said. "But I don't think retaining students is the only option that we have. I think there are other options that can be pursued."

Among the possible solutions, Grasmick said, will be yearlong interventions, such as before- and after-school learning programs.

Grasmick questioned the effectiveness of the district's current practice of giving summer learning packets to students who have been held back multiple times before but are now being moved to the next grade.

"These are the most difficult and challenging students, and these students are essentially being asked to self-pace and learn independently," she said.

"It is predictable in terms of it being unsuccessful," Grasmick added.

Jones said remedial summer school was not an option for that group of students because only those who are being recommended for retention are offered summer school help.

"Summer learning is good for all students," Jones said. "But the [school board] policy says if you are retained you will be assigned to summer school. If you are going to be promoted, you don't go to summer school."

As Baltimore school officials struggle with the problem of students who are retained several times, education researchers say the approach often produces undesirable results.

Jan Hughes, a professor of educational psychology at Texas A&M University, has studied the issue under a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

"Very few children retained twice go on to get their high school diploma," Hughes said.

Retained students often learn less than they would have had they been promoted, she said, because embarrassment leads them to skip school, act out and experience other behavioral problems, or work hard at trying not to be noticed.

"It's like wearing a big scarlet A," Hughes said.

Some education experts said Baltimore's problem could have been foreseen.

"I'm surprised they didn't anticipate that," when adopting the tough promotion policy, said Andrea Canter, co-author of the National Association of School Psychologists' position statement against retention.

"Kids who are just very low achievers or poor attenders, that doesn't go away just because they hold them back," Canter said.

Some school administrators in Baltimore echoed that opinion.

Edna Greer, the principal at Leith Walk Elementary School, said she would never retain a child more than once - regardless of the school system's tougher promotion policy.

"We need to find out what it is for that child that is causing him to be retained," Greer said. "And then, once you find that out, come up with alternative strategies that are going to work."

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