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Board wants to end social promotion

More students could be held back if the Legislature adopts the plan by the Board of Education.

Published January 19, 2005

TAMPA - The board that oversees education in Florida dropped a policy bomb Tuesday, saying it wants to end social promotion in all grades.

If such a policy were in place last year, more than 400,000 students across the state would have been at risk of being held back.

The change would need the blessing of the Legislature, which is what the state Board of Education voted to seek when the legislative session begins in March.

The board's plan is "extraordinary," chairman Phil Handy told other members meeting at Hillsborough Community College. "I don't want anyone to misunderstand the significance."

Currently, only third-graders can be retained if they score too low on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or fail to meet alternative criteria. But Education Commissioner John Winn, citing rising student achievement, said the time has come to raise the bar and expand the policy.

If lawmakers approve, Florida would have one of the most aggressive retention policies in the United States. And education officials also are suggesting repealing some of the exemptions that allow low-scoring third-graders to be promoted.

Said Winn: "There's always a little pain before you bump the standards up."

Social promotion is the decades-old practice of passing students on to the next grade whether they are performing at grade level or not.

As an education issue, it is as hot button as it gets. Philadelphia's school superintendent once called it "a cancer that eats at the heart of public education."

Supporters liken it to tough love, saying it's better to hold students back until they learn crucial skills. Critics say it can stigmatize students so badly they quit school to avoid teasing from their peers.

The research isn't conclusive one way or the other.

A recent study by the Manhattan Institute, a South Florida think tank, found that Florida third-graders who were held back - and given intense instruction - outperformed their peers who were promoted. But studies outside Florida have found that retaining students increases the likelihood of their dropping out.

Retention policies are popular with politicians, but that support can be counterproductive, said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association.

"We're talking about the progress of children," not widgets, he said.

The state's current policy, which went into effect two years ago, is tied to a student's reading score on the FCAT. Last year, nearly 20,000 third-graders who scored at the lowest level on the FCAT, Level 1, were retained - several thousand of them for a second time.

Statewide, 431,000 students in grades 3-10 scored at the same level. That's 28 percent of the student population in those grades.

"Nobody wants a 15-year-old in a third-grade classroom," Mary Laura Openshaw, director of Just Read, Florida, told board members Tuesday. But promoting students who haven't mastered basic reading skills is almost "educational malpractice."

Lawmakers had differing reactions.

"I think it'll have plenty of support," said Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, a member of the House education committee. "I personally don't see this being a big, controversial issue for us."

Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, was more cautious.

"It's not something you can just throw out there. It's a major change in policy," said Constantine, immediate past chair of the Senate education committee.

Constantine said he generally supports the notion of retention, but didn't want to comment on the proposal until he saw the details.

Winn said if lawmakers approve the policy, the board will decide when to phase it in, what grades to expand it to and what criteria to use.

A sketch of the proposal that circulated at Tuesday's board meeting suggested the same criteria used in third grade would be used in fourth and fifth grades and tweaked for higher grades.

Winn said letter grades might factor into the retention policy for middle and high school students. He said the Education Department was eyeing sixth grade as a foothold for the policy in middle school. He said he wanted to see the policy eventually rolled out to first- and second-graders, too, though alternative criteria would have to be developed since those grades don't take the FCAT.

He also said it might take a decade to expand the policy throughout the system.

"It's not going to happen tomorrow," he said.

Changes in policy, though, could happen as early as next month.

The board said it wants to take a closer look at exemptions for third-graders, which include scores on alternative tests and portfolios that showcase a body of academic work.

The number of exemptions increased last year from 10,845 to 13,563.

Many of them were based on portfolios, which might be "the hole through which you drive the Mack truck through," Openshaw said.

Bottom line: "We still promote too many Level 1 kids," she told the board.

Times staff writer Matthew Waite and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873.

[Last modified January 19, 2005, 04:38:43]

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