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Low Standards Cheat Students

November 12, 2000

As the Los Angeles public school system implements the new state ban on social promotion in the second and eighth grades, school board member David Tokofsky rightly wants to set a minimum standard. He proposes that students who score below the fifth percentile (no, not the 50th, not even the 15th) in reading on the Stanford 9 standardized test not be promoted. He expects to be ridiculed for setting such a disgracefully low threshold, but even that dismal goal may not be accepted by district educators or the rest of the school board.

The current policy relies primarily on the judgment of a teacher. Tests can't replace teachers, of course, but Tokofsky, a veteran teacher before he joined the school board, correctly believes that students who are among the very lowest scorers on the annual standardized test cannot possibly work at or near grade level. He's also right that they should be held back no matter how they are seen as performing on schoolwork or on the district's mandatory writing assignment. The national average, of course, is the 50th percentile, and the recognized range for work at grade level starts around 30, the precise point depending on which expert is making the determination.

Social promotion, the practice of advancing a student who has not mastered the schoolwork, does a disservice to that youngster and to his or her classmates, who are shortchanged when a teacher must spend extra time helping the failing student.

Tokofsky's motion has come up against the private worries of educators who prefer the judgment of an experienced teacher over test scores, and at least one board member who fears that any criterion based on a standardized test would hold back a huge number of black and Latino students before the district can provide them with experienced teachers and effective remedial instruction.

Under the current policy, second-graders who fail reading and eighth-graders who flunk English are supposed to repeat the grade if they don't improve enough to pass after they take remedial classes. Tokofsky's proposal would hold them back if they scored below the fifth percentile on the Stanford 9 test, which will now be given later in the traditional school year.

Questions about who is currently being held back and why will be answered Thursday when Tokofsky's motion is considered by the school board's curriculum and instruction committee. He is not alone in asking how 80% of 3,800 failing eighth-graders made enough progress during summer school to advance to the ninth grade. Last November, district administrators, including former interim Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, who was serving then as a consultant, predicted that more than two-thirds of eighth-graders would be held back if social promotion was fully implemented. That projection, based on standardized testing and trends, also held that roughly 50%, or about 350,000 students, would be kept back if the district completely stopped promoting students who were not ready to move up a grade.

To prevent an unmanageable flood of retentions, the district chose to target only the second and eighth grades for the first year's implementation of the ban against social promotion, and final discretion was given to teachers in the intervention program.

Standardized test scores certainly don't tell the whole story about a student's performance or potential, but Tokofsky is right in insisting that a level must be set below which no student is promoted. How absurd that even such a low standard runs up against the conventional thinking at the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Those who worry about whether disadvantaged kids can make the grade should worry more about how they will ever improve if no educator expects them to clear even the lowest educational bar. That is, as George W. Bush said during the presidential campaign, the soft bigotry of low expectations.

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