Lowering achievement standards for students is not sound educational policy, and diluting academic performance standards is neither proposed nor even under consideration for the children in the D.C. public schools.
A fair amount of confusion has surrounded last week's erroneous reports that new promotional policies might be in the offing for District students. While a relaxation of current pupil achievement standards was never at issue, the need for a thoughtful, thorough discussion of how promotional standards can best be used to improve actual learning remains on the public agenda.
Large city school systems, often characterized as the "Peck's bad boy" of public education, have met with some welcome success in recent years. The reading test scores of elementary schoolchildren have risen in almost half the nation's largest urban centers. For the past three years, Washington, D.C., showing steady gains in both elementary math and reading scores, has been among those cities demonstrating measurable educational improvements.
Although many factors may contribute to this upward swing, one common theme resounds throughout these cities' school systems: each has set more rigorous achievement standards for students.
Former school superintendent Vincent Reed addressed the need for higher standards in the District with the introduction of the Competency- Based Curriculum (CBC) in 1977. CBC emphasizes the attainment of certain specified skills at every grade level. CBC, however, is not a promotion policy; it is a curriculum. It outlines what skills and concepts are to be taught in each grade, but does not set the requirements for grade-to- grade promotions.
The D.C. Student Progress Plan, adopted by the Board of Education and initiated last school year in grades 1 through 3, ties the Competency-Based Curriculum to requirements for promotion. Under the Student Progress Plan, a checklist of skills required by the CBC was established for each semester of every grade. Students in grades 1 through 3 had to demonstrate mastery of those skills if they were to be promoted to the next grade. At mid- year, more than 10,000 first-, second- and third-graders failed to show on reading and math tests that they had learned the required skills. Through a concerted instructional and volunteer tutorial effort, almost two-thirds of these students did bring their skill levels up during the second semester and were promoted.
This year, the Student Progress Plan will be extended to grades 4 through 6. Thus, in school year 1981- 82, a first-grader will face the prospect of 12 promotional "gates" to pass through on the way to junior high school.
Passage through the gates currently is based solely on the attainment of skills in two areas: reading and math. Other areas of learning such as pupil maturity, classroom performance, attendance and prior achievement record are not deciding factors in student promotion and retention.
Student progress plans are not natives to Washington. New York City, Miami, Richmond and Chicago all have initiated some form of promotional "gate" policy in the last few years. New York has gates at the fourth and seventh grades; Richmond established such checkpoints at Grades 2, 5, 8 and 12.
The adoption of these promotional gates does not mean that retentions can occur only at these targeted grades. Promotional standards remain in effect for all grades.
In New York City schools, for example, every grade has standards governing not only achievement in basic skills but in other areas of study and in pupil behavior and attendance. The promotional gates, however, serve as citywide checkpoints to "guarantee" the mastery of certain fundamental skills. At these checkpoints, several additional resources, such as especially trained remedial teachers and intensified summer school instruction are provided.
The promotional gates are meant to serve as complements to the grade-to-grade standards, not as replacements for those standards. The gates reinforce yearly promotion measures; they don't supplant them.
Washington's student progress plan, with its promotional gates established at every semester, is the most ambitious such policy in the nation. Furthermore, among the school systems adopting such plans, D.C. public schools have the least amount of resources to launch such a massive undertaking.
Promotional gate plans require more than simply enough money to test all students in their skill proficiencies. Failing large numbers of students on the basis of test scores is not expensive, but providing the means for those retained students to bring their skills up to par is a most costly endeavor. Students with serious skill deficiencies need more than merely to "repeat a grade." Such students may require more teachers with particular expertise in providing remedial help, smaller classes and a variety of alternative instructional programs.
In short, numerous unresolved issues surround the adoption of promotional gate programs. Although the student achievement data from these plans appear promising, most cities, including Washington, have worked with these programs for only a year or two. Conclusive evaluations have not yet emerged.
The D.C. public school system is initiating such an evaluation of its Student Progress Plan this year. No recommendations on changes in promotional policies can or will go forward to the Board of Education until that assessment is complete.
However, now is the time for a thorough public discussion of the promotion issues: what configuration of academic standards and regular assessment of achievement will best serve the educational needs of the city's young people? Given the differing rates of learning among young children, what degree of flexibility should be incorporated in promotional plans? How can parents become full partners in their children's learning and, thereby, provide needed assistance before retention even becomes a possibility? At what grade levels are rigorous skill assessments most educationally productive and how will adequate financial resources be secured to provide the additional education services needed for students with lagging achievement records?
Educators, parents, students and community members must examine these questions fully before any definitive changes will be appropriate. A healthy airing of educational views and a review of national trends and approaches taken in other cities are in order. As critical, controversial issues emerge, as they must, in any serious effort for improvement in education, the expressions of opinion, the critiques and the reporting of such matters must be characterized by a sense of reasonableness and responsibilty. To allow for less will diminish the opportunities for providing children with the highest quality of education.