The Baltimore school board voted unanimously last night to set new passing standards for children in grades one through eight, saying it hoped the policy would raise expectations and achievement.
"We can't ignore the fact that this system has failed students for years. We are trying to reverse the clock," said Tyson Tildon, president of the school board.
To continue to promote pupils who are performing far below standards would be "cruel," Tildon said.
The new policy will end the social promotion of students that has resulted in many middle- and high-schoolers falling years behind academically.
The policy, which requires pupils to score 70 percent on a locally written test each year and to have passing grades, will take effect next fall after school officials have had time to set up programs to help struggling children catch up. School officials estimated the programs will cost a minimum of $20 million.
The board's action is bold and costly because the majority of the system's students are failing state and national standards and thousands of children are at risk of being held back.
For instance, 84 percent of city pupils in grades three, five and eight are not meeting state standards on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.
Fifty percent of eighth-graders failed the state's functional math test -- a test that every eighth-grader would be required to pass under the new standards.
While every board member supported the policy, several expressed concerns.
Board member Sam Stringfield suggested that even if the system were able -- with a lot of effort -- to get all but 35 percent of eighth-graders to pass the functional math test in the next two years, a large number of children would not meet standards.
"Would we retain 35 percent of our students" in the eighth grade, Stringfield asked.
Betty Morgan, the school system's chief academic officer, said she believed a significant number of eighth-graders might have to have a semester of intensive math and reading classes before they could go on to the ninth grade.
A fifth-grade teacher, Peter French, pleaded with the board not to approve the policy, saying that some teachers believed that a single test should not be used to judge whether children are ready to go to the next grade.
"This is not an assembly line. This is not a factory," French said. "Teachers at my school asked me to come down and plead with you. This is a very complex issue."
Board member Dorothy Siegel suggested that at the end of this school year, the system should warn all pupils who would have failed if the policy had been in effect.
School officials said they would ask for comment from parents, teachers and pupils on how to best implement remedial programs before the policy takes effect next fall. The school system is considering a variety of approaches, including an expanded summer school, after-school programs, one-on-one tutoring and transitional classes for children who have to be held back.
School officials have allowed leeway in making a decision to retain a child. A school committee can be convened to consider individual cases and the principal has the final say in whether a pupil is promoted.
The new policy is part of a five-year strategy to reform Baltimore's troubled school system and is in line with reforms that have been carried out across the country.
Pub Date: 10/13/99