City schools shun tests for grade promotion

September 08, 2006|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

The news that 19,000 elementary and middle school pupils in Baltimore were being held back created an uproar among parents in 2003. So the next year, the school system quietly stopped requiring third- through eighth-graders to earn a minimum score on a national standardized test to be promoted to the next grade.

This summer, the school board officially scrapped the testing requirement, a move coming on the same night as it lowered the passing grade in key subjects from 70 to 60.

The result is a promotion policy less stringent than the one in place a few years ago, but one that eliminates the questionable practices of using a single exam to determine whether children pass or fail and making them repeat grades multiple times.

School system officials insist they have not lowered academic standards or reverted to the practice of "social promotion," saying they still have the toughest policy in the state.

But they face a problem that has vexed educators in Baltimore and other big city school systems for decades: When children - sometimes tens of thousands - are far behind where they're supposed to be academically, is it better to pass them on to the next grade with their classmates or to hold them back for a year or more?

Social promotion is a policy that allows students to pass no matter how poorly they perform in the classroom. The issue has become fodder in the governor's race. In refusing to reappoint three city school board members last month, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said the board has an "indefensible policy on social promotion." Ehrlich has repeatedly blasted his rival, Mayor Martin O'Malley, over the performance of the city schools.

Yesterday, city school board member Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman - who like all board members was appointed jointly by Ehrlich and O'Malley - came back swinging at the governor. He said changes to the promotion policy came under the guidance of the state education department, including state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, an Ehrlich ally.

"We do more to stop social promotion than any school system in this country," said Hettleman, noting that the system still retained about 7,000 students in 2005. (Officials said figures for this year are not available.)

In Maryland's counties, Hettleman said, "they don't hold kids back."

A spokesman for Ehrlich declined to comment further.

Vague standards

The promotion policies in many of the state's suburban systems are vaguer than Baltimore's. Baltimore County, for example, leaves the decision to hold a child back to the school principal.

Nationally, many urban school systems adopted strict policies against social promotion, around the time Baltimore did, in the late 1990s, after a call by President Bill Clinton to end the practice. In recent years, though, a number of systems have backed off amid budget constraints and other practical concerns, said Karl L. Alexander, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist.

Some big cities, including New York and Chicago, maintain rigid anti-social promotion policies.

The debate is a complex one. On one hand, teachers can no longer pass students just for showing up and behaving. Starting with this year's high school sophomores, Maryland students will have to pass basic skills tests in English, algebra, biology and government to get a diploma. So students' failures in the early grades will catch up with them later.

At the same time, research is clear that students who are held back a grade are more likely to drop out of high school, and students held back more than once are extremely likely to drop out. It also shows the futility of teaching children the same material they didn't grasp the first time without a drastic change in instructional strategy.

Betty Morgan, a former chief academic officer in the city schools, said that when system officials first began to combat social promotion, they would find kids who were two grade levels behind in reading getting A's in their language arts classes. "Kids who were quiet and nice and didn't act up would get good grades," she said.

The system today has hundreds of 16-year-olds still in middle school, the result of being held back more than once. In recent years, it has stopped the practice of "multiple retention." Hettleman said 80 percent to 90 percent of students retained more than once drop out.

How the system determined which children to retain changed through the years. By 2003, elementary and middle school pupils had to have at least a 70 in their core classes, and they had to score at least at the 23rd percentile on a national standardized test called the TerraNova.

Scoring at the 23rd percentile means a child scored better than about 22 percent of test-takers in a national sample and was outperformed by 77 percent. Though the score was a low one, thousands of children in Baltimore had trouble achieving it.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.