A rule designed to end "social promotions" of elementary students who are behind in their classwork won preliminary approval from the Montgomery County School Board last week.

The provision would require principals to justify in writing to their superiors most cases in which pupils performing below their grade level were passed on to the next grade.

Exempt from the rule, if it receives final approval next month, will be children who have learning disabilities or do not speak English.

The requirement is part of a new, wide-ranging policy for kindergarten through eighth grade now being considered by the School Board. The policy, designed to toughen academic standards, will include guidelines on curriculum, staffing, homework and counseling, among other areas.

The board rejected a proposal by member Marian Greenblatt that would have mandated retaining students in certain grades if they were more than a year and a half behind in reading or math.

Greenblatt said she introduced the proposal because "there are students today arriving at junior high and high school who are more than two years behind in reading. It's a very serious problem."

But board member Blair Ewing called Greenblatt's proposal "rigid and automatic" and said it was "downright insulting to the professional competence of principals and teachers."

Wyngate Elementary School Principal Joan Israel, who chaired the committee that drafted the policy, said the committee also opposed Greenblatt's proposal.

"She's going on the assumption that retaining helps students, but we know from experience it does not," said Israel. "In my experience and that of every other principal I know, it's usually a disaster. It not only doesn't improve them, they get worse."

Israel said many students who are not promoted develop emotional and behavioral problems. Many principals choose other remedial methods as "more productive" ways to help such children, she said.

Principals, consulting with teachers and parents, are in the best position to judge the most appropriate ways of dealing with students who have difficulties, Israel said.

Ewing said the tentatively adopted promotion regulation was actually "much tougher" than Greenblatt's proposal because it would require the monitoring of performance at every grade level, rather than just in the third, sixth and eighth grades.

Greenblatt had charged that "social promotions" were frequent in county schools after she compared individual schools' test scores--showing the percentage of students at least one year below grade level--with the number of students who were not promoted from each school.

In several schools the number of students who were behind on the tests for third and fifth grades, the only grades tested, was larger than the number of students retained for the whole school.

Steve Frankel, school system director of accountability, cautioned that the test data Greenblatt used were somewhat skewed because they included students who had special learning problems or were learning English as a second language. Such children usually are promoted and given extra help.

Frankel also said the test scores were not accurate for individual students, but only as an indication of patterns among large groups.

Israel said comparing the two sets of figures was like "comparing apples and oranges and coming out with eggs."

She added that she had reviewed promotion data for the past three years and found that between 1 and 3 percent of students were retained at each grade level.

This shows that principals are using retention, but only "judiciously," Israel said.

Greenblatt countered that criticizing her comparison of test scores "does not answer the problem." In order to be graduated these students will have to pass the Maryland Functional Reading Test, a state literacy test for all high school seniors, as well as a math test that is now being developed, she said.

"Who are we kidding?" Greenblatt asked. "If a student graduates or goes through high school and can't read, what service have we done?"

Although Greenblatt said she expects there may be some "fine tuning" of the promotion regulation before it is finally passed, she believes it will "in effect, end social promotion." Because a principal will have to justify such a promotion, it will be viewed as "not a trivial matter," she said.

It will be up to the superintendent to define pupil performance "below grade level." Under current standards, a student would have to be at least a year behind in reading, math or other subjects to be placed in this category.

The board will consider other proposals for the elementary school policy next month, including a Greenblatt suggestion that students who have repeated the sixth or eighth grade be placed in a separate program of remedial courses until they have sufficiently improved their reading and math scores.