After heralding the adoption of tough new passing standards for Baltimore school students in the fall of 1999, school administrators now are trying to revise the policy to prevent the confusion that led to scores of children being improperly promoted last year.
In the past week, several policy revisions have been considered, including one that could weaken standards. The central issue is whether the school system should require students to earn a minimum score on a national standardized test as well as earn acceptable grades.
After a round of criticism and comment from teachers and school board members, Chief Academic Officer Cassandra W. Jones said she will present the board with several options Tuesday.
Board members often have said they consider the promotion policy key to their five-year effort to reform the school system - the one way they can ensure they are raising standards and expectations for the city's children.
"Clearly, what Dr. Jones and the whole system is trying to do is work toward a clearly understood public policy, and we are not there yet. It is going to take some deliberation," said board member Samuel C. Stringfield.
Previously, teachers followed an unwritten code permitting them to pass children to the next grade even if they hadn't mastered the required material and skills. As a result, it hasn't been uncommon to find high school students reading at a third-grade level.
But with city test scores still low, raising standards has serious implications because so many underachieving students could be retained in their grades.
Last year, one-third of the city's children were invited to attend summer school, although enrollment was slightly less than that. It is unclear how many children would have been held back if the policy had been fully implemented. School officials acknowledged in December that some principals passed children who failed math, although passing grades in language arts and math were required.
Summer school can be costly, and several parent and community groups have raised concerns about whether the school system is helping children catch up when they are kept back. A child cannot be held back more than once.
Although the wording of the policy passed by the board several years ago has not been changed, in practice the standard has varied from year to year. The policy says a student has to score 70 percent on a locally written test and earn satisfactory grades.
Two years ago, the policy took effect for second- and fourth-graders only. The city used a national standardized test - the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills - to determine whether a pupil would be promoted. Pupils who were reading more than three months behind grade level as measured by the CTBS were given the chance to attend summer school to catch up. If they chose not to go to summer school and did not catch up, they failed.
Last year, as the policy was expanded to include all pupils in grades one through eight, the school system used tests written by textbook publishers, along with grades in math and reading, to determine whether a child would be promoted. Principals were allowed to intervene and promote children even if they didn't meet standards.
In December, Jones proposed clarifying the policy once again, saying that more weight would be given to grades than to a student's performance on the textbook tests, called curriculum assessment tests.
That standard, suggested board members J. Tyson Tildon and Stringfield, might not be rigorous enough. Stringfield said it would "institutionalize a lower standard."
Last week, Jones said she had another draft proposal, one that would require students to score at or above the 23rd percentile nationally on the CTBS and earn grades of at least 60 in both math and language arts. The assessments would be factored into the grade.
The 50th percentile is the national average.
Stringfield, who is a Johns Hopkins University education researcher, said he would favor using grades and a minimum CTBS score, as well as allowing principals to have some say if they believe a child might have scored poorly on the standardized test because of illness or other extenuating circumstances.
But he wants these principals to be required to sign a document stating their belief that the child can succeed in the next grade.
School administrators have been criticized by community and other leaders for confusion over the policy. Besides having to decide which factors will be used this year, the school system also proposes toughening standards slightly during the next few years. They would push up a passing grade from 60 to 70 for elementary and middle school pupils, and require middle school pupils to pass the statewide functional tests to move to the next grade.
Critics say the system should have involved the public more in decision-making.
Although Jones said she has gotten comments from hundreds of teachers, principals and parents, the parent forums scheduled this month were not well advertised, critics said.
Michael Hamilton, president of the Baltimore Council of PTAs, said with the current policy still not clarified this late in the school year, parents are concerned that if their children are in danger of failing, they might not find out until late in the school year - long after the time when they could take action to help their children.
Bebe Verdery, education director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said she is concerned about the process. In addition, she said, school officials have offered little data about what has happened to children who have been held back.
"I am very concerned that the board finds itself in the position of making decisions without adequate information," she said.
"It seems like every year the standard is changing."