The truth about policy on `social promotion'

September 18, 2006|By Kalman R. Hettleman

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., in his repeated criticisms of the Baltimore school system, has pointed to its "indefensible policy on social promotion" - that is, promoting students to the next grade even if they have not met passing standards - as prime evidence of the failure of the system.

True, city schools socially promote some students. But the governor misrepresents the policy in many ways.

First, he ignores the fact that the city policy was developed in close cooperation with and was approved by the Maryland State Department of Education during his administration.

Second, contrary to the impression left by the governor, each year many thousands of students who do not meet standards are not socially promoted; they flunk and must repeat the grade.

Of course, it is sad that so many students in city schools - despite the substantial progress in recent years on state achievement tests - do not meet grade-level standards. National research shows clearly that neither retention nor social promotion works well. If a student falls behind, interventions - including summer school, tutoring and remedial programs - must be immediately available to avoid the lesser-of-the-evils choice between holding the student back a year and passing the unprepared student to the next grade.

In the late 1990s, steps to end social promotion became a national movement, led by the Chicago school system. The Baltimore school system convened a task force (I was a community member and wrote a policy study analyzing efforts in other cities). The task force's report led the school board in 2000 to adopt policies that went further than other urban systems in curbing social promotions.

Whereas other school districts raised standards and barriers against social promotion in so-called gateway grades, usually third, fifth and eighth, and sometimes only in reading, Baltimore raised them in grades one through eight in reading and math. At the same time, the city was a national leader in the percentage of students offered summer school to enable them to improve enough to avoid retention.

Numerous retentions still occurred in those grades: from 2001 to 2003, as many as 20,000 students per year. What's more, many students were retained multiple times - that is, held back more than once in the same or another grade. Similar patterns emerged in other large urban school systems, causing some to backtrack on the rigor of their policies. In particular, multiple retentions were deemed unacceptable in the face of research showing that 80 percent to 90 percent of such students became dropouts.

Baltimore, too, sought to adjust. In September 2003, State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Baltimore schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland convened a new task force (which as a community member I co-chaired) to review the policy. In creating the task force, they wrote that the Baltimore school system "has been a national leader in the development and implementation of a demanding policy to raise the number of students who meet high standards for promotion from grade to grade."

Numerous state representatives were on the task force, and Ms. Grasmick's chief liaison to the city schools was, in effect, a co-chair. In 2004, the school board adopted the task force's recommendations for revisions to the policy that strongly limited multiple retentions. That policy is in essence the current policy that the governor has attacked. So while Mr. Ehrlich has said that he wants the city school board to be "in sync" with the state, we already are.

The governor also ignores the reality that all school systems in Maryland socially promote significant numbers of students. The last city task force studied the promotion-or-retention policies in other school districts, including Howard, Frederick and Montgomery counties, and found that their policies are not nearly as stringent as the city's.

Yes, they have fewer students who do not meet passing standards than the city does. But, as shown by scores on state tests, they have many who fail to achieve academic proficiency. Almost all of these county students, based on estimates given us by these districts, are socially promoted.

The best answer for all school systems is to reduce the number of low-performing students and thereby avoid the Hobson's choice of promotion or retention. Baltimore has made vast progress in doing this.

Still, there's a long way to go, and the promotion-or-retention policy will continue to require close scrutiny. To that end, the city school board re-examines its policy year to year with state and public participation. One hopes that Governor Ehrlich will reconsider his misleading depiction of the city policy and join in a constructive effort to wrestle with a complex problem.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a member of the Baltimore school board. His e-mail is khettleman@comcast.net.

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