National debate re-emerges

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Chicago’s debate over social promotion has faded for the most part. In Illinois, few followed the city’s lead in making standardized test scores a primary factor in retaining children.  Many large districts and charter schools say they look at multiple factors before holding children back and don’t pass students along for social reasons—but don’t fail large numbers of students either.

Outside of Chicago and Illinois, though, social promotion is re-emerging as an issue, although research studies have shown repeatedly that holding children back is harmful. This spring, for instance, Oklahoma’s state schools superintendent pushed a bill through the state legislature that required 3rd-graders to pass a reading test to go to 4th grade. In Florida, a statewide ban on social promotion since 2002 means that students take the standardized test in 3rd grade and must earn a certain score to move on to 4th. 

Other districts are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Wilfredo Ortiz, the School District of Philadelphia’s deputy chief of counseling and promotion standards, says the district shies away from tests as the sole means of evaluating students for retention. 

“We have an old way of thinking,” he says.

Kathy Christie, the chief of staff of the Education Commission of the States, says the organization is seeing increased interest in the issue. About five years ago, the commission tracked promotion policies across the country and is thinking of starting to do it again. “I am seeing it raising its head again,” Christie says.

In New York State, where incoming Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard hails from, tough promotion policies have been a major issue in the school debate.  At the press conference announcing Brizard’s appointment, Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel praised him for implementing in Rochester a tough high school promotion policy that requires students to earn more credits as they move into their junior year of high school.

Rochester’s promotion policy for elementary school students is unclear—there is no mention of it in the district’s policy guidelines and officials did not return calls from Catalyst.
In New York City, where Brizard spent most of his career, Mayor Michael Bloomberg made ending social promotion a major part of his education platform. Students are tested every year between grades 3 and 8, and promotion depends on scores. In high school, the focus shifts to course requirements.

New York City’s policy emphasized early intervention for students before they were at the point of being retained. A 2009 RAND Corp. study found that these supports helped students meet the promotion criteria and, in fact, few students were held back.

Because the students have not yet made it through high school, researchers have yet to see whether retained students do better in high school or are more likely to drop out, as previous studies on retention have shown.

Also, the RAND study notes that the capacity to provide support differed from school to school. Schools with a high percentage of children needing extra assistance were not always able to provide it to each student.

In Los Angeles, money became the deciding factor: Budget constraints forced officials to abandon the promotion policy because the district could no longer afford summer school.

In Illinois, some charter schools and districts reiterate a point made by other educators: If children are to be held back, the ISAT is a poor tool to use in making the decision.

“The ISAT is a single data point and, quite frankly, they are not high-performance tests,” says Tom Hay, the assistant superintendent for curriculum at Carpentersville Community Unit School District 300.

In Chicago, charter schools are free to adopt their own promotion policies and some, like Providence Englewood, opt for tough standards. At Providence Englewood, students most score above the 35th percentile on the TerraNova (a standardized test used by districts across the country), pass their classes and not have major behavior problems. Students who are held back are automatically enrolled in after-school tutoring two days a week for all subjects.

Overall, though, charters hold back fewer children than traditional public schools—in 2010, just 2 percent of students, according to CPS data.

Another indicator used by some charters and districts is the Light’s Retention Scale, which evaluates students based on a number of academic and developmental criteria. Grades or class credits underlie most promotion decisions, and these indicators often supersede test scores.

“One of the misconceptions we work to ‘un-inform’ people about is that you can’t fail or pass the ISAT,” says Lisa Kenner, the principal at Legacy Charter.  “We don’t feel that a single ISAT score should trump all these other pieces.”

Other charters aim to get struggling children back on the right track with intensive help. Namaste Charter employs an entire literacy intervention team that works with 65 to 75 students a week.

LEARN Charter, which rarely retains students, has class sizes of 25 students with two teachers each. The charter also has “academic interventionists,” who are certified teachers charged with pulling out students who need the most help and working with them one-on-one or in small groups.

Dao Kambara, director of academics for LEARN, says that teachers and administrators use tests throughout the school year to monitor where students are and how they are progressing. They also monitor attendance and whether the student is getting above a C-minus in their classes.

“We don’t look at one data point because it doesn’t make sense,” she says.