The nation’s second-largest school district officially launched itself once more into an ongoing national debate over social promotion, the practice of moving students to the next grade even when they’re academically unprepared.
The Los Angeles Board of Education agreed last week to begin revamping a policy that bars the advancement of unqualified students to the next grade. The rules have been loosely enforced. One proposal is to focus more intensively on struggling students in grades three, five and seven, considered key transition years.
“Having a child repeat the same grade the same way doesn’t produce stellar results,” said board member Tamar Galatzan, who proposed the board action. “Making sure that students have learned the material when they move from grade to grade is something this district needs to do a better job of.”
The issue was to have been settled in 1998, when a state law was passed requiring school districts to retain students who don’t meet academic requirements.
Despite the law, California students continue to be moved along, regardless of academic achievement.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, only a small percentage are held back, although, according to state test results, large numbers perform well below grade level.
After the state law passed, local education officials debated who should be held back, when and why. And they worried about angry parents and overcrowded classrooms. These fears did not materialize, although classrooms have remained crowded for other reasons. Meanwhile, the focus on how to improve academic achievement shifted elsewhere.
The issue of social promotion arises cyclically nationwide, especially in large, low-performing urban districts.
In New York City, ending social promotion has been a tenet of reforms advanced by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. There is debate over how thoroughly the policy has been enforced and over its effectiveness.
A recent Rand study of practices in New York City found some benefits, at least in the short term, although they could result from better academic intervention rather than retention. Some experts cite research suggesting that short-term gains are offset by long-term harm, such as increased dropout rates when older students, stigmatized as academic failures, fall grade levels behind their peers.
In 1998, L.A. Unified sent a delegation to Chicago to study that school district’s policy of keeping back students who aren’t academically ready for the next grade. It’s still in place for students in grades three, six and eight.
In the last decade, the Denver public school system took a different tack under then-chief academic officer Jaime Aquino. Administrators viewed social promotion as a symptom of the district’s failings so officials were, in effect, reluctant to retain students, Aquino said.
“There was a systemic failure of meeting the needs of students,” said Aquino, who recently joined L.A. Unified as deputy superintendent for instruction. “It would have been really unfair to hold students accountable for their learning when we were not delivering.”
Many educators agree that it’s best to catch up students with specialized instruction before they need to be held back. Experts also talk about concentrating on students’ specific shortcomings rather than simply repeating all the material in a grade.
Los Angeles officials say students need to accomplish certain academic milestones by particular grades. In third grade, for example, students should be reading fluently.
“If a child is not reading by the age of 9, the likelihood of not making it through school is huge,” said Judy Elliott, the district’s chief academic officer.
Similar attention in fifth grade makes sense, Elliott said, because of a notable drop in student test scores in sixth grade, after most students enter middle school. And the attention in seventh grade would be aimed at making sure students are ready for high school.
In high school, students must earn credits to graduate, and if they fail classes in ninth grade, for example, they aren’t promoted to 10th grade.
Overall, about 7.5% of L.A. Unified students have been retained for a year by the third grade.
The decision to retain students in Los Angeles seems to have some benefits, at least in the short term, according to researchers Jill S. Cannon and Stephen Lipscomb in a report from the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California.
“Students retained in the first or second grade can significantly improve their grade-level skills during their repeated year,” Cannon and Lipscomb wrote. The extra year put many held-back students in better position to move to the next grade, but they typically did not catch up entirely.
These benefits were noted in results from before the worst of the state’s economic crisis, which caused cutbacks to programs for struggling students. One casualty in L.A. Unified has been summer school and intercession classes in which more than 225,000 students had been enrolled. Summer classes remain available mainly to small numbers of high schoolers completing graduation requirements.
The loss of summer school, which also affected other California school systems, was a driving force behind the L.A. Unified’s decision to reexamine its promotion policy.
In New York City, by contrast, summer school remains an important component. At the end of the summer session, students targeted for retention can test to win promotion to the next grade level.