Last semester I signed up to teach two English classes at Columbia Union College in Takoma Park. One of the classes was English 050, or Basic English, for new students who had failed a writing placement test. The students had to pass my course and the exam to be able to continue into English 101 and 102, which are core requirements for an undergraduate degree. My class was essentially a grammatical boot camp.

The September placement test gave my students an hour to write an essay assessing whether the media could be held partly responsible for incidents like the shootings in Littleton, Colo. Here's the start of one student's essay:

Violence

My thought on violence. I think the reason why violence is increase day by day. because to start at home. student having problem at home and they take it on the word. I have four reason to say that.

Violence

The reason violence is increase because teen have more negative I have four explain. or reason why I think that. Explain one, Rap music all the rap or song about is gun, sex and negivative behaviors. Explain two. . . .

The other students' essays revealed difficulties of the same kind, though to varying degrees: trouble matching subjects to verbs, forming complete sentences, differentiating between "their," "they're" and "there"--difficulties that I thought would have been sorted out in grade school. Two of the students are not native English speakers and the language is fairly new to them, but the other 15 had graduated from public and private American high schools. The author of the essay above graduated from a public high school in Prince George's County. She is quiet and respectful--and had slipped through with passes in classrooms of about 35 students.

My challenge was to cram all those years of English instruction into one semester. Very quickly, December arrived and grades came due. The class was pass/fail. A stark choice. What was I to do about the athlete on scholarship, for whom a failing grade would mean disqualification? Could I give a pass to the author of the essay above, who I was certain would fail the placement exam again but who had worked hard and made considerable progress during the semester? I realized that I was standing at a brink where many of these students' teachers must have stood before.

When President Clinton called for an end to social promotion in last year's State of the Union address, the federal government, school boards and state governments began looking more closely at an issue that has been the focus of research for several years. In a 1996 national survey conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, more than half of the high school teachers questioned said they had promoted unprepared students in the past year, with most teachers adding that they did not think there were better alternatives. In the same survey, 60 percent of teachers said they felt pressure from principals or other administrators to pass students, and 52 percent felt parental pressure. "In the short term," wrote Jerry Jesness, a Texas special education teacher, in the journal Reason, "floating standards make everybody a winner. Students build self-esteem, parents gain peace of mind, and schools save money."

My sister, a special education teacher in an elementary school in West Virginia, has also told me that she was more than happy to pass a boy last year who spent much of his time running around the classroom determined to be the sole object of her attention. All teachers, I now realize, stand to benefit from social promotion in the short-term. I was not teaching special education students, but I could see the temptation to pacify the more difficult members of my class by passing them. And wouldn't a 100-percent pass rate reflect well on me as an instructor?

But what about the long-term consequences? What does a high school diploma mean when students can graduate with the sort of minimal writing skills I was seeing in my class, I wondered? Was college the right place for the 17 students who were in my Basic English class?

Looking back on that semester, there's no doubt in my mind that all but a few of my students will benefit from being--and staying--in college. Sure, there were two or three who lacked initiative (a girl who once held a cell-phone conversation during class comes to mind), or who seemed to believe they were entitled to succeed (and didn't hesitate to remind me of my own shortcomings). But attitudes of that sort were not typical. Many of my students were among the strongest believers in the value of education that I've met. It was the system that had let them down so far, I soon concluded--by avoiding the badge of failure, and instead allowing inflated grades and floating standards to be the measures of achievement.

As the semester progressed, and I voiced some of these thoughts in class, I learned that many of my students felt betrayed by teachers who had let them sail on through. What they wanted from me, my students said, was absolute honesty--both about their abilities and about why my class mattered. Their teachers, I began to suspect, had by and large failed to achieve the balance I was struggling to attain: a mix of discipline and sympathy.

It took me a while to realize there is a right kind and a wrong kind of sympathy. For a while I was too sympathetic to indolence and poor work. Some students told me I needed to be tougher. But even as I became better at demonstrating what was and what was not acceptable, I realized I had to be even more sympathetic to the deeper questions about why learning grammar is important. Would being a clearer writer bring them success, my students asked me. Would it improve their relationships, resolve conflicts with their moms and dads, make them happier? Or is learning grammar and writing skills just painful drudgery that would eventually make them vain professor types?

I told them I didn't know. But I didn't consider their questions silly or unimportant. Many of my students told me that they used to go through entire courses in which teachers would never communicate the purpose and value of what they were asking students to do--and the teachers themselves often looked so unhappy that the students didn't want to end up like them.

One of the luxuries I had as an adjunct teacher was to set long office hours during which I could do private tutoring and get to know my students. I learned that the author of the essay on violence is working two jobs to put herself through school and has to get home in time to cook the evening meal for her husband and herself. She didn't tell me this to make me feel sorry for her; she just told me. She still found time to come in almost an hour every week to work with me--and it helped. Here's the first paragraph of the last essay she wrote for me:

What I admire about Oprah Winfrey is her success of becoming an actress, broadcasting executive and a television Talks Show host. The reason why I admire her, is because she did not let her skin color stop her from achieving her goals. That's why she is a multi-millionaire businesswoman across the nation.

Should I have failed her because one cannot really be a "businesswoman across the nation" or because of her other errors?

I passed her, even though she is not writing at a college level. She and one other student I passed then failed the exit placement exam and face taking English 050 again with another teacher. Both took the failure better than I had anticipated. The author of the essay on violence told me she had found a private tutor for the next semester--demonstrating initiative that I applaud.

Based on their course work alone, I failed two students in my class of 17--the student with the cell phone (who later failed her second attempt at the placement exam) and another who later didn't show up for the exam. I didn't allow her to retake it. When she came into my office the next week and said she had forgotten the time and complained about how she hadn't learned enough in my class, I reminded her of the office hours meetings she had repeatedly missed.

At the end of the semester, my fellow teachers and I chose three topics to prepare the students for their placement exam. They would have an hour to write a 350- to 500-word essay on one of the three. The final topic we selected was social promotion.

The quality of the writing in those exams varied, of course, but all the students showed improvement--and a few of the essays really shone. What I found most striking, though, was the content. Almost all of the students, from three separate 050 sections, argued that they had not been helped by being allowed to drift from hollow success to hollow success. "I think indeed that teachers should fail those who are not ready," one essay began. The ending of one student's essay--a student who failed the exam--lingers in my mind. As a final paragraph, he appended (as close as I remember it) "a note to teachers: Please fail those whose not prepared. They need to learn."

Some of the essays suggested remedies, such as smaller class sizes, private tutoring, and more after-school and summer programs to avoid the unattractive option of being held back. I hope that, with the renewed federal attention, there is a chance that initiatives of that sort will get the funding they need.

But what I remember most about reading those essays was how sad they made me feel. They were the words of young men and women who had been misled time and again, and who now wanted to make honest successes of themselves. It's our challenge, as educators, to respond with the same degree of honesty and commitment.

Freelance writer Charles Wilson recently finished a masters degree in English literature and is considering a career in teaching.