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California and the West

Anti-'Social Promotion' Bills Signed

Education: Legislation approved by Wilson requires that students master necessary course work before moving to the next grade. Summer school and tutoring will be available.


Calling on public schools to overcome their fear of flunking children who fall behind, Gov. Pete Wilson on Wednesday signed legislation that he believes will end a "tragedy" that afflicts hundreds of thousands of California students: "social promotion."

"No longer will promotion to the next grade be as automatic as a birthday," Wilson told teachers, parents and students in Culver City.

The theory is simple: Instead of passing students along for fear of damaging their self-esteem, the governor said, schools must now ensure that they have mastered the course work. If necessary, low achievers will go to summer school or after-hours tutoring sessions.

If those steps fail, students may repeat a grade.

"Yes, some kids are going to be held back," Wilson said. "And being held back in school can be painful for a while. But it's nowhere near as painful as being held back from a good job or a college education."

The Republican governor's words echoed those of would-be school reformers of all political stripes from coast to coast. President Clinton, a Democrat, demanded an end to social promotions this year in his State of the Union speech. Long Beach and Chicago have attracted national notice for sending students to summer school. In Los Angeles, a task force plans to present a plan to curtail social promotions by year's end.

Yet the very school the governor chose as a backdrop to announce the bill signings shows why it won't be easy for educators to end social promotions.

At La Ballona Elementary, in some ways a model for the state, nearly one of every three students must go to summer school or get extra help before or after school.

But only two or three students each year are forced to repeat a grade, although the state's standardized test last spring found that just one-third of La Ballona fourth-graders could read in English better than the national average. In part that's because many students are still learning English.

For those students and others, said Principal Dale Petrulis, staying back a year is "a terrible option."

What works best, Petrulis and many educators say, are remedial programs that seek to lift students up to par without delaying their 13-year march through the public school system.

That is just what the new state legislation, in two separate bills signed by Wilson, proposes to do.

The first new law, AB 1626 by Assemblyman Howard Wayne (D-San Diego), requires the State Board of Education to set minimum standards by the next school year for what students should know to be promoted to the next grade--and to link those standards to the new statewide testing program.

Local school districts, in turn, will be required to establish promotion and retention policies at five crucial transition points: from grade two to grade three; from three to four; from four to five; from elementary school to middle school; and from middle school to high school. In the earliest grades, reading and arithmetic are the key skills that students are expected to learn.

Finally, the law requires teachers to identify students who should be held back based on their test scores, class grades and other academic indicators. Teachers can then explain in writing why such students should not be retained or refer them to remedial classes to help them catch up.

Being asked to put their reasons on paper might deter teachers from citing self-esteem as a rationale for passing students. One fifth-grade teacher at La Ballona said Wednesday that she often worries about holding back students who are tall for their age, knowing that their height will make them feel out of place among younger classmates.

The second new law, AB 1639 by Assemblyman Michael Sweeney (D-Hayward), requires school districts to offer the remedial classes during school breaks, weekends or after school. Students with problems in reading, math and writing will get top priority. The state budget allotted $105 million for these remediation programs, on top of $50 million for other after-school programs. The money will be available starting with this school year.

Four mothers who attended the Wilson event said afterward that they strongly support ending social promotions. But their enthusiasm for summer school programs was much greater than their enthusiasm for making students repeat a grade.

"It can be unsettling to the child," said Patti Schaub, who has a daughter in third grade. "It would be difficult, definitely very difficult."

L.A. District Fashions Own Plan

Some experts say that holding students back a grade does more harm than good. Lorrie Shepard, an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said a large body of research, going back several decades, has found that students who are held back may do better at first, but generally decline in achievement in later years.

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