Baltimore school leaders will not hold back tens of thousands of students failing classes this year, in favor of giving them additional time and customized instruction plans to make up gaps in their learning created by a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Chief Academic Officer Joan Dabrowski said every student will be tested in the fall to determine what skills they have missed and the schools will create a plan for each student designed to catch them up. Instead of punishing students for circumstances they could not control, she said, the school system wants to provide help.
The system also will adjust student grades. Elementary students who have an “unsatisfactory” grade in a course and middle school students with a failing grade will get a “not completed.” High school students with a failing grade will get a “no credit.”
To hold students back “feels punitive,” she said. “It feels in contrast to a spirit of hope and a commitment we are going to make to students.”
About 65% of secondary students and 50% of elementary students in the system are failing at least one class, according to the school system. To hold everyone back would go against current education research that indicates students have better long-term academic success when they are given support.
“The challenge of virtual learning cannot be understated,” Dabrowski said. “As a system this is why we have to approach post COVID in a very different frame.”
The decision was announced at a school board meeting Tuesday night and in emails to parents and teachers. It does not require a vote of the school board.
David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and a former Maryland State School Board member, said it is the right approach.
“I am excited about this courageous decision,” he said.
The approach is likely to draw criticism from those who have said in the past that the city schools promote students without holding them to standards. But Steiner said this is not social promotion.
“If you just socially promote and then remediate then you damage children,” he said. “Instead, this approach is intended to keep students learning at the next level. So for a sixth grader who failed a course, the message will be: ‘We are putting you in seventh grade and we refuse to accept that you can’t do seventh grade work and we will do everything we can to give you access to next week’s seventh grade lesson.’”
Steiner said the district needs to target skills that students need later on. So if there is a sixth grade math skill that is needed to be successful in algebra later, then teach that lesson, he said.
The approach, Steiner said, will require teachers to go deeper into the curriculum but move at a slower pace. So if they usually would teach six major units in the curriculum in a year in English, they may have to do only three but do them well, giving students time to master them and catch up.
Baltimore appears to be one of the first school systems that has announced what it will do with thousands of failing students. Many other school systems across the state and the nation are facing similar challenges.
In an attempt to end social promotion, city school officials told 30,000 students in 2001 that they had to attend summer school after they failed to pass a national grade level test. Those that didn’t go to summer school or didn’t pass the summer classes were held back — some 10,000 students in elementary and middle school grades. But after a few years, school officials relented on the policy when more than 1,500 students would have been held back multiple times.
New research from Zearn, a nonprofit that has an online math program, showed that students did better when they were passed to the next grade and expected to catch up with a curriculum for the next grade than those who received remediation. The approach was particularly effective for students of color, the research found.
In the long run, research shows, students are less likely to do well if held back.
Steiner said the most recent research shows that the psychological effects of being held back are detrimental and in some cases hurt the child’s learning because they think of themselves as failures.
In addition, he said, research shows that students who are remediated — or given the same material again — are less likely to learn it the second time than the first time, often because it is now not appropriate to their developmental age.