Catania aims to end ‘social promotion’ in D.C. schools

This post has been updated.

D.C. Council Member David A. Catania says he plans to introduce legislation to repeal a rule that requires most of the District’s elementary- and middle-school students to be passed along from one grade to the next.

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“We have an inexplicable municipal regulation that forces social promotion,” said Catania (I-At Large), chair of the council’s new education committee, in a hearing Wednesday. “It has to stop.”

The regulation in question permits schools to flunk students only in grades three, five and eight. It also says that in most cases, a student can’t be held back more than once during his or her D.C. schools career.

The result, Catania says, is that too many children are pushed along despite lacking basic skills. Then they find themselves in high school facing graduation requirements that they’re not prepared to meet.

“Then truancy spikes. Failure is on full display,” and thousands of kids drop out, Catania said. “It’s not fair to those kids who aren’t ready to go forward to continue that kind of farce.”

Holding a child back should always be a last resort, Catania said, used only after schools try other avenues — including more instruction and different kinds of instruction. But he said retaining a child shouldn’t be against the rules — teachers and principals should have the option to hold a student back if they think it’s in the child’s best interest.

“What we’ve done is taken any manner of discretion away from the school system,” Catania said in an interview.

It remains to be seen how enthusiastic his colleagues — and D.C. educators — would be about opening the door to more retentions.

Studies have shown that young students who are held back are more likely to drop out as teens, and the working theory has long been that schools can provide whatever extra support a struggling child needs without resorting to retention and all its associated emotional damage and social disruption.

Many teachers and principals and parents still believe that, but it seems that the pendulum is beginning to swing.

Some charter schools, including in the District, have stringent standards that students must meet to be promoted. And in recent years, a growing number of states have passed laws requiring children to be held back at the end of third grade if they cannot read, with some, such as Florida, showing notably improved literacy rates.

D.C. Council Member Vincent Orange (D-At Large) has introduced a similar measure in the District. It calls for holding back third-graders who cannot pass a reading test after receiving extra support.

 
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