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Passing Along a Problem?

Many schools promote the unqualified, trying not to stigmatize them. Critics say that just makes matters worse.


UKIAH — It was, in too many ways, a bad year for the teachers of Ukiah High School.

For English teacher Pat Alto, it started in September with the discovery that several of her seniors could not construct a simple sentence.

For history teacher Philip Boynton, it was the Fs he passed out to a dozen students, half of them freshmen, this spring.

In all, more than 40% of Ukiah's freshmen failed at least one course in the first quarter of the year, and 13% failed three or more. For the proud faculty of this distinguished Northern California school, it was too shocking to ignore.

Why, they asked with wearying frequency, were so many youths arriving in their classrooms unprepared for high school work?

The teachers believed they knew what to blame--and decided to let this Mendocino County town in on the awful secret.

"The problem," 75 teachers wrote in a quarter-page ad published in the local newspaper last month, "is the inability of some schools to set and enforce academic and disciplinary standards."

In other words, Ukiah's junior high and elementary schools were passing students who could not read, write or compute at the appropriate level--a "terrifying problem," the teachers charged, that would destroy effective public education in their town.

In flinging the issue out for public scrutiny, the teachers stepped into a national debate over social promotion--advancing students on the basis of age and attendance, not achievement.

Although the practice isn't new--it has gone in and out of fashion for at least 60 years--the will to eradicate it has become a recurring feature of education reform in the last few years.

From agricultural towns such as Ukiah to urban centers such as Long Beach, Rochester, N.Y., Cincinnati, Chicago and Miami, districts have begun eliminating social promotions and strengthening teachers' and principals' authority to hold students back.

Attacking the policy has become politically correct. Gov. Pete Wilson has called for an end to social promotions as part of his education reform campaign. President Clinton urged governors at a recent national education summit to mandate promotional tests.

But ending social promotions is not as simple as its critics make it sound. Few districts have consistent grading practices or clear goals for each grade level. Only five states--Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia--require students to pass a test to be promoted.

"What that means is that at the end of the year students get promoted, but based on what?" said Ruth Wattenberg, deputy director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers.

The debate also raises sticky questions of accountability. Whose fault is it if a child has not mastered the skills and knowledge expected of him or her in a given year? Is it the child's for not trying, or the teacher's for a job poorly done?

"Teachers have been crying for years and years that we don't want social promotion . . . but it's not necessarily painless to come to grips with," said Tom Mooney, president of the teachers union in Cincinnati, where the school board voted in 1991 to abolish the practice. Social promotion, teachers complain, forces them to water down the curriculum and spend more time disciplining students who act up because they can't do the work.

Yet many educators fear the alternatives. The most controversial is retention--making students repeat the year they failed--which studies have shown increases chances they will drop out later.

Simply retaining students also could clog the system, a Florida education official said recently, leading districts to "building parking lots in middle schools for kids who are not ready to move up."

Envisioning the impracticalities of ending social promotion is not hard in the huge Los Angeles Unified School District. Among its 650,000 students, fewer than 1% of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders were held back in the 1994-95 school year, despite an estimated 30% who had Ds or Fs in one or more academic subjects.

Failing students do not suffer any real consequences until high school, when graduation requirements are based on credits earned by passing courses. "That's a little bit too little too late," said John Liechty, the district director of middle school instruction and a critic of social promotion.

Surveys suggest the practice is widespread. One-third of 805 teachers polled nationwide by the American Federation of Teachers last year said at least 20% of their pupils should not have been promoted to their class; among urban teachers, 49% said they had students who had been socially promoted.

Schools are most inclined to hold a student back in the primary grades, when developmental differences strongly affect the pace at which young children learn.

For older children, the decision to socially promote is often based on the undeniable signs of physical maturity: A student who is a year older and a head taller than his or her classmates sticks out and may be taunted.

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