State may stop judging schools by promotions


The pressure elementary school teachers feel to pass students who aren't making the grade may soon be eased -- promotion may be dropped as a measure of school performance, state school board members said yesterday.

"The message is children will be promoted on the basis of their achievement toward the academic goals, not because the state measures the promotion rate," said Christopher Cross, state school board president.

Since Maryland's 5-year-old school reform program made promotion rate a criterion for judging an elementary school's performance, teachers and school administrators said they have felt they should pass virtually all students -- whether or not they were doing satisfactory work.

Baltimore's promotion rate rose from 91 percent to 97 percent -- in the "satisfactory" range -- after the standard was established in 1990. Statewide, the promotion rate has gone from 97.5 percent in 1990 to 99 percent last year.

While it may make a student feel better in the short run, Mr. Cross said, the long-term effect of passing a student who is not ready is "the beginning of a downward spiral to dropping out."

Yesterday, an education task force recommended that the board stop counting promotion among the symbols of school quality scrutinized each year. The state school board plans to vote on the recommendation next month and expects little opposition; representatives of Maryland's 24 school districts for the most part have supported the proposed change.

"The standard had been counterproductive because it encouraged social promotion in some of our schools," said Nat Harrington, spokesman for Baltimore City schools. So-called "social promotions" pass students based on age rather than achievement.

While it should not be used to judge a school's performance, promotion data should still be collected annually by the state, the task force recommended.

Eliminating the standard won't end all "social promotions," said Robert E. Gabrys, chairman of the task force and assistant state superintendent for research and development. In fact, he said, he can't predict whether school districts' annual rates would fall as the pressure eases.

"I don't know that they'll dip," Mr. Gabrys said. "We wouldn't expect droves of students will be retained now, but we can expect that decisions would be made on an individual case-by-case basis and not because of some mixed message sent to the schools."

In some cases, passing a student will still be deemed to be in the student's best interests. Some of these "social promotions" will continue, he and other educators said.

Mr. Harrington said the state's proposed change, once passed, will be interpreted as applying mostly to older elementary school children. Failing the youngest children sometimes harms their self-esteem, hesaid. "In grades kindergarten through two, we have research that shows failure has a negative effect on a child's performance."

Promotion rate has been one of the standards used by the state in its annual "report card" on schools. Schools are also judged on test scores, attendance and dropout rate. The state had set a promotion rate of 96 percent as "satisfactory" and 98 percent as "excellent."

Schools doing poorly on the state standards are subject to state orders that the schools must be reorganized. If local school systems fail to submit a plan the state finds acceptable, the state can turn the schools over to a third party to run.

Also yesterday, the state board said it could not yet approve short-term plans for state-ordered reforms at three Baltimore schools because the proposals are incomplete.

The interim plan submitted by city schools for Furman Templeton Elementary was inadequate and is being revised by Principal Carolyn Blackwell and school officials, said State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. The proposal did not adequately outline steps school management would take to overcome the school's many obstacles, including its 50 percent student mobility -- turnover -- rate, which contribute to rock-bottom test scores.

Ms. Blackwell said interim plans will include replacing half of the school's 16 regular teachers, who have retired or transferred.

Meanwhile, the school system has not named new principals for the two poor-scoring middle schools, Calverton and Arnett Brown. Dr. Grasmick advised the state board against accepting the plans until new leaders are in place.

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