State looks to solve problem of social promotion
The California Legislature’s 1998 plan to rid social promotion from public schools is a step in holding school districts accountable for learning. But the state’s education leaders say it may be an unrealistic approach.
“If you asked citizens whether students should meet standards, most people would say, ‘Yes, absolutely,’ and that they shouldn’t just move on through the system. But the research is clear that there is some detriment to holding them back,” said El Dorado County Superintendent Vicki Barber. She went on to say that social acceptance and peer pressure are factors in a student’s motivation to attend school. “It takes a change in how education is presented.”
The legislation strives to make this change, but leaves little room for failure.
Social promotion, until last year, was a widely used method of encouraging academic achievement by pushing students who weren’t working at grade level onto the challenges of higher grades. But without supplemental instruction, it wasn’t always successful. Its negative effects become clear when a high school graduate can’t read or write well enough to fill out a job application.
“Anecdotally, it was happening. But it’s anecdotal. As far as whether there are a lot of people graduating who don’t know how to read – probably not,” said Pat McCabe, consultant for the state office of education.
One of the bill’s authors, Assemblyman Howard Wayne (D-San Diego) disagrees.
“It’s our understanding that 60 percent of entering freshmen in the state university system needed remedial math or English or both,” Wayne said Tuesday. “And those are the top third of high school graduates. Clearly something is wrong if the top third can’t pass basic math and English. What’s happening to the bottom two-thirds?
“Kids were being promoted along from grade to grade without learning what’s required. That’s promoting failure.”
The new legislation doesn’t aim to keep students in the second grade until they’re able to read. What it does is force school districts to address the individual needs of their students in the early grades, and to follow those needs through the 12th grade, so that any problems that do exist can be caught early on. It’s an intervention program.
The problem many districts face is that the program doesn’t offer clear guidelines or adequate funding.
“The implementation is left up to us, which can become a problem,” said Lake Tahoe Unified School District Deputy Superintendent Barbara Davis. “There’s lack of money and lack of clarity.”
According to Davis, there are no state standards by which to evaluate students, so making the decision to intervene, pass or fail is being done by teachers. If intervention is deemed necessary, state funding covers only a portion of the cost of those efforts.
“(The California School Boards Association) wanted unlimited funding from the Legislature, but the state is not going to do that. We have limited resources, so we’ll have to do the best we can and get the biggest bang for the buck,” Davis said.
If students fail to meet district-adopted standards, law requires they be retained. Holding students back has shown to be detrimental for many.
“A large body of research shows that retention is not an effective method of intervention,” said Debbie Lott, consultant for the Curriculum Support Office of the California Department of Education.
“The No. 1 factor in predicting whether students drop out is whether they’ve been retained,” McCabe said.
The legislation is made up of three parts. First, Assembly Bill 1626 addresses school district policies on whether a student passes or fails. Under AB 1626, two indicators can be used to make the decision: district-designated indicators and students’ grades, or students’ achievement of the minimum proficiency level recommended by the state board on the STAR test. However, according to the California School Boards Association, the STAR test has inherent limitations, including lack of state-adopted proficiency levels for each grade. Additionally, the association notes, “the STAR test only measures student performance on a single test, for the day it was taken and only for the test questions chosen.”
AB 1626 also requires districts to identify students at risk of failing as early in the school year as possible, and indicate what remedial opportunities are available. When a student is below the district’s chosen level, the student must be held back in the current grade unless the student’s teacher finds retention to be inappropriate. In that case, the district is required to provide supplemental instruction to bring the student up to district standards.
Second, the legislation includes AB 1639 which deals with supplemental instruction. AB 1639 would add grades two through six to the current state requirement that supplemental instruction be offered to students who have been retained in grades seven through 12.
AB 1639 requires districts to offer summer school, intersession or other supplemental programs to help students who have been retained, or at risk of failing, meet standards.
Finally, the legislation addresses funding for intervention programs. Senate Bill 1370 increases state-paid reimbursement for summer school programs from 5 percent of the district’s prior year enrollment to between 7 and 10 percent.
“In large districts like (Los Angeles Unified) there are large numbers of students at risk, and the funding is not adequate. They’re capped at 10 percent of enrollment and L.A. has identified 30 percent of its students at risk,” said Cathy George, consultant for the Model Programs and Network division of the state office of education.
Los Angeles Unified School District has recently abandoned its goal to be the first district in the state to end social promotion. Incoming superintendent, Ramon Cortines, said the district will phase out the practice over a period of four years.
Lake Tahoe Unified School District will take the same approach to its supplemental programs, according to Davis.
The state Legislature did not set an implementation date for school district policies to end social promotion.
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