By KENT FISCHER
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 1998
hat to do about John?
He's a second-grader, who towers over his classmates. But he's a year behind in reading, and his frustrated teachers at Centennial Elementary School in Dade City are wondering what to do next. His teacher flips through a green folder: Tutoring, special education testing, a personal reading program.
None of it worked.
What next? Should they hold John back -- make him repeat second grade? Or should he get a "social promotion," which would send the boy to third grade despite his slow progress.
John's teacher pushes for social promotion. He is taller and more mature than his classmates and may feel out of place with second-graders next year, she argues. Repeating the grade probably won't help. Besides, his teacher continues, John does good work on the few occasions when he applies himself.
The 11 others shoehorned around the conference table nod. They know keeping him back probably won't help him catch up. If anything, a retention will dramatically increase the chances that he will eventually become a drop out.
"Through my daily observations and his work habits, I feel he's critically low in reading and writing," the teacher says of John, whose real name is withheld as part of the agreement that allowed a Times reporter to witness the meeting.
"What about retention?" asks assistant principal Eva Hunsberger.
"I don't think so," the teacher says, shaking her head. "I just don't see him as a good candidate for so many reasons. He's really big."
"Maturity. Size," says another teacher.
"And he's very street-smart," John's teacher continues. "I would be worried about motivational issues. ... I don't know that we accomplish anything" with a retention.
That brings more nods from the group.
"Okay, gotcha," Hunsberger says. "We'll promote him and invite him to summer school."
John, who barely has the skills of a second-grader, will be a third-grader next year. This month in Florida schools, principals will push ahead another 45,000 students like John.
Over time, critics say, those well-intentioned promotions cheapen the education of all children. They erode classroom standards, inflate grades and teach kids that hard work doesn't count.
Lowering the Bar
Educators socially promote children to keep them interested in learning despite their academic setbacks.
Less than 3 percent of all students advance in this way each year. But that percentage reflects only those social promotions where a principal makes the decision, passes the child and reports the action to the state. Since 1993, Florida principals have handed out 175,000 documented social promotions.
But that's not nearly the half of it.
Interviews with educational researchers and scores of teachers reveal that thousands more social promotions occur, quietly, in the classroom and don't show up in state statistics. They're the result of pressure from administrators to keep failure rates down, dumbed-down assignments, questionable extra-credit work and withering academic standards.
How pervasive is the problem? Almost 60 percent of Pasco teachers responding to a Times survey said official social promotions force them to lower their standards and to teach weaker lessons to all students.
"In my class, if the students make even half an effort they'll get an A or a B," said Gail Reynolds, a veteran English teacher at Zephyrhills High School. "These kids would have had to work very hard for a C 20 years ago. We're accepting less and less."
Dozens of teachers told the Times that at least one in every four Florida school children is not academically qualified for the grade they're in. Yet each year, schools promote about 95 percent of their students to the next grade.
"One of the biggest problems we've created for ourselves is the expanded use of social promotions," said Education Commissioner Frank Brogan. "The bottom line is we have to stop pushing kids ahead when they are not ready. When you socially promote large numbers of students, you pull down what you expect of all students."
The numbers prove his point:
* 25 percent of eleventh- and twelfth- graders failed last year's state graduation test -- which is set at about the ninth-grade level.
* 40 percent of Florida college freshman weren't ready for college last year and had to take remedial courses instead. Cost: $15-million a year.
* 40 percent of Pinellas County school children can't read at their grade level, according to a recent report.
* 42 percent of Hillsborough County fourth graders scored so low on a statewide writing test last year that they would not have met a key requirement of the district's new promotion standards.
Now, top officials of the Florida Department of Education have declared war on what Brogan calls "the wholesale use of social promotions."
A scene late last month at Bayonet Point Middle School in Pasco County illustrates their concerns:
Many students in Jim Wilcox's eighth-grade earth-science class strain over a simple project. Working in pairs, the students construct time lines of the history of the universe. The assignment was little more than an exercise in converting decimals, something all the students had previously studied -- and supposedly mastered.
"To go from millimeters to centimeters, how many decimal places do we go?" Wilcox asks the class.
"Three," shouts one student.
"One," says the rest of the class.
"Right. Which way do we move it?" Wilcox asks.
"To the right," answer about six students.
"No, to the left," the rest of the class says loudly.
A girl in the front row raises her hand.
"We did time lines in sixth-grade and we did measurement last year," she says. "Why do we have to do it again?"
Despite explicit directions and the decimal rehash, about a third of the students appear to be lost or completely uninterested. Fifteen minutes before the class ends, two girls sit on the floor in the back of the room. The only mark on their time line is the black line they drew down the middle of it. They have not converted a single measurement.
"Mr. Wilcox, we need help," says one, chewing on a green fingernail. "Where do we start?"
Pressure to Pass
Critics trace the rise of social promotion in Florida schools to the '80s, when headlines screamed about Florida's embarrassing high dropout rate.
Knowing that retention contributes to the dropout rate, principals focused on ways to help students bring up their grades. Some teachers say that translated into pressure to pass kids, no matter what.
Teachers who flunk more than 10 per cent of their students are sometimes seen as poor teachers and may get bad job evaluations.
John Barry discovered early one school year that the kids in his class at Tarpon Springs Middle School were not accustomed to hard work.
The best way to handle it, he thought, was to tell the students exactly what he expected of them, and let the grades fall where they may. More than half his students got D's and F's during the first half of the year.
"I got called on the carpet for that," Barry said, recalling his 1995 job evaluation. "They got the grades they deserved. But I was told, flat out, the grades had to come up."
Barry's evaluation wasn't good that year. He was cited for using sarcasm with students and for missing faculty meetings. But much of the evaluation details the F's and D's he handed out. He's a substitute teacher now, and doesn't think he will ever be hired again full-time.
The irony of the thing, he said, is that by the end of the year, not many kids in his Social Studies class flunked.
"I was making them work, holding them to a standard," Barry said. "But they responded to it. Once they know you're serious, they can do the work."
Math teacher Dean Johnson had a similar experience. He has consistently had good evaluations at Dunedin High School. But in 1993 and 1994, he was criticized for failing too many students (40 per cent got F's one semester). On both evaluations, an administrator detailed the percentage of D's and F's he gave to students, and in 1994 wrote: "Rates too high."
Many teachers find it difficult to stand up to administrators. So, they do just about anything to ensure that their students pass. They accept assignments months after they're due. They contrive easy extra credit projects so students can gain enough points to reach a passing grade. They give "open book" tests, where students use their notebooks to look up answers.
Hudson Middle School teacher Cliff Taylor gives bonus points when students return a report card with a parent's signature on it. He'll do the same thing if a parent signs an assignment that their child flunked.
"Technically they're earning points for not learning anything, but I'm at least making the parent aware of the problem," Taylor said.
And then there is the ever-present "participation points," which students earn for being attentive in class. It lets kids, as one teacher put it, "earn points for breathing." In Pasco County, those points account for one-quarter of a student's grade.
As part of a reading-comprehension test, English teacher Carol Dull required her students to write a summary of a recent reading assignment. Ten of her students didn't do it and received a grade of zero. Later, Dull realized the zeros would make it extremely hard for the students to pass the class.
So she decided to use the exercise as a bonus assignment, not a graded exam. Students who scored better than 80 on the assignment received 10 bonus points. The others -- including the 10 who didn't do it at all -- got nothing extra. But they didn't get zeros, either.
"These are the kinds of things I'll do to compensate because so many (students) have never been asked to work hard," said Dull, who teaches at River Ridge High School in Pasco County. "What am I supposed to do with a kid who can't write a complete sentence?"
Kids say social promotion does teach them one thing: why work hard when you don't have to?
Shannon Hinrichs said that, in middle school, she loved to cause trouble. She skipped school and slid by doing as little work as possible. When she got to high school, she was reading on the third-grade level.
"It's a lot harder because you don't know how to read, you don't know how to spell," she said of high school. "I want a high school diploma, but it's really hard because I'm so far behind."
A sophomore now, Shannon is in a dropout prevention class at Ridgewood High in Pasco County. In less than two years, she has improved her reading skills by three grade levels and has her eye on graduation. Her teachers think she can do it. Shannon knows it won't be easy.
"It's my own doing," she says of the hard work ahead. "If I wanted to make A's (in middle school), I could have."
Why didn't she?
"Because I knew they would pass me. They always did."
A Tough Call
Florida lawmakers are pressing to halt such automatic promotions.
Two years ago, the state Cabinet adopted the "Sunshine State Standards," certain key skills all children are to master by the end of elementary, middle and high school. To see how well those standards are being met, the state spent $25-million to create a new series of tests, called Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT. The new tests cost $7-million a year to administer.
The results of the first round of tests came out Monday. Brogan labeled "somewhat sobering" the statewide average score of around 300 out of a possible 500.
In future years, a lot will ride on FCAT scores: whether fifth- and eighth-graders go on to middle and high school, and whether high school students will get their diplomas.
Meanwhile, districts have until July 1 to comply with a new law, quietly passed by last year's Legislature. It orders schools to create academic standards for each grade. Students who fail to meet them in grades 2, 3 and 4 will be held back if they are still behind after a year of remedial help (Please see: New law contradicts aim of reforms, some say).
"Social promotions will have a very small place -- if at all -- in this system," said David Ashburn, a state deputy education commissioner in charge of instruction and assessment. "We want all students to be able to read, write and compute before they get promoted, not after."
Florida isn't the only state cracking down on social promotion. Districts in Chicago, New York, Seattle, Boston and Texas are clamping down on social promotion. (Please see: Chicago schools take a stand for 'old-fashioned' standards)
It's an admirable goal, proponents of social promotion say. But it's also unrealistic and terribly short-sighted.
Many factors outside the classroom influence a child's success in school. In fact, the single most decisive predictor of academic success is the attitude of a child's parents. Poverty, health problems and learning disabilities also figure into the equation.
Furthermore, few educators think retaining students does them any good.
Hard and fast retention policies had their day in the '70s and were failures, according to Oscar Robinson, the director of elementary education in Pinellas County.
Under the old system "we had a lot of kids going to middle school already ready to drop out," he said. "Personally, I think we make too big a deal out of promotion, retention and social promotion. The key is instructional support and better trained teachers."
Knowing all this, educators have long wrangled with the promotion/ retention dilemma.
Most school districts strictly limit the number of times students can be held back. Students in Pasco and Pinellas counties, for example, can be held back only once in elementary school and once in middle school, no matter how bad their grades. In most districts, principals must weigh a student's social and emotional health, as well as their physical size, maturity and attitude toward school.
Until recently, Pasco County's promotion policy stated: "Poor (grades) and/or performance on achievement tests need not result in retention."
Even in Hillsborough, which last year adopted tough new promotion policies, principals can consider holding a child back only when the student's "physical, social and emotional development support a retention decision."
The new policy, however, is coupled with clear academic standards each child must meet in order to earn a promotion.
"The lines are very clear now," said Marilyn Blackmer, an elementary curriculum specialist in Hillsborough. "Principals know exactly what the criteria are ..."
Principals say they have to consider social and emotional factors because after a retention, students are older and often more mature than their classmates. They can feel out of place and sometimes look out of place. The awkwardness can lead to discipline problems, which put the children further behind. Retained students often see themselves as failures, which does nothing to help them catch up academically.
What does help them catch up is remediation -- lots of it. And that, teachers say, is the key. They can live with social promotion if the kids get intense extra help. Of course, that's expensive and all too often, the help doesn't come. Or when it does, the help doesn't work. Remediation then falls to the classroom teachers.
That's when social promotion begins to erode the quality of everyone's education.
"We do a lot of remediation, and you'll find we aren't teaching as much of the curriculum because of it," said Mike Phillips, a seventh-grade math teacher at Hudson Middle School in Pasco County.
The Snowball Effect
In the weeks before Christmas vacation, a fifth-grade student in Wendy Carswell's class had finally started learning how to multiply and divide. Carswell planned to start teaching fractions after the holidays, but Carswell knew the girl needed to hone more basic skills before tackling new material.
So while the rest of her class at Centennial Elementary in Dade City tackled fractions, the girl went to another teacher for extra help in multiplication and division. It meant she would probably miss fractions altogether, and go to middle school knowing little about them.
"I would rather send her to sixth grade having mastered multiplication and division and not been exposed to fractions, than send her on having mastered neither," Carswell said. "Why hold a child back for an entire year if they have a deficit in just one area?"
That seems fair, if the focus is on that one child. But critics say it may not be fair to that child's new classmates.
When students progress without basic skills, teachers down the line must help them catch up. That takes time away from the majority of students, who aren't behind.
Eighth-grade math teacher Bill Kollenbaum, for example, exhausts half the school year re-teaching elementary math: rounding whole numbers, computing fractions, solving simple word problems.
Then he squeezes the entire eighth-grade curriculum, which sets the foundation for algebra, into the last half of the school year.
"I'm teaching sixth-grade material in eighth grade," said Kollenbaum, a 30-year classroom veteran who teaches at Hudson Middle in Pasco. "These kids can't compute."
Yet the kids will continue to pass through school, no matter how badly they perform. That's especially true if the student had already been retained.
Ten days ago, some educators at Bay Point Middle in Pinellas County sat down to decide what to do with one such child.
He is a 14-year-old sixth-grader, two to three years older than his classmates. Retained twice already, he is pretty much guaranteed promotions throughout the rest of middle school, even though he's absent 75 percent of the time.
"He's bigger than everyone else, and older," said principal Dennis Griffin. "Now, he doesn't come to school because he doesn't want to be in class with the little kids."
Griffin, a guidance counselor and an assistant principal sort through the boy's file, thinking aloud as they go. The file shows a steady string of F's. His classmates tease him, and he often responds with threats.
"No way, obviously, we can retain this kid," Griffin says. "There's no point in sending him to summer school."
"He won't go," replies counselor Linda Rounsaville.
For a minute they even contemplate putting him in eighth grade with kids closer to his own age, but decide against it. Griffin fills out a form letter to the boy's parents, informing them of his decision to promote their son to seventh grade despite his atrocious grades.
"I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking he's ready for seventh grade," Griffin said after the meeting.
The anguish of failure
Sometimes schools want to hold children back, only to have the decision vetoed by the parents. They see retention as the greater evil, an academic Scarlet Letter that brands their children, and themselves, as failures.
Heather Belasic's teacher at Woodland Elementary in Zephyrhills recommended she repeat first grade. Her mother, Denise, refused, and the school promoted Heather. A year later, Heather's second-grade teacher also recommended a retention. Denise was again resolute: Move her on.
"My husband was adamant about keeping her back, but I wasn't," Denise Belasic said. "When you hold your child back people look at you like your child isn't as smart as theirs."
Three years later, Heather still struggles in school. Her reading skills are adequate, but she has difficulty comprehending what she reads. As a result, she's behind in almost every subject.
Her mother can't help but feel partly to blame.
Did she read to her daughter enough? Should she have sent Heather to pre-school? If she volunteered more in school, would she have noticed her daughter's academic troubles?
"She was behind from the first day of first grade," Denise Belasic said. "Why didn't I notice it? I felt that I should have been more involved. I felt like I didn't do my job. If we had held her back, maybe she wouldn't have so much trouble."
Heather's test scores aren't low enough to qualify her for special education or other intensive remedial help. The Belasics pay a teacher $25 to tutor Heather once a week after school. But Heather still struggles.
"When I see that my child needs extra help and the school isn't offering it, I don't understand that," Denise Belasic said.
Vivian Bowman is in a similar situation. Her youngest son, Ronald Squire, is in sixth-grade and also is struggling to read.
Throughout school, Ronald's report cards gave few hints of serious academic trouble. Although he twice attended summer school, his teachers at Gulfport Elementary in Pinellas County gave the boy mostly B's. A school counselor wrote that Ronald was "attentive, motivated and puts forth good effort."
But even in fifth grade, Ronald struggled to read even the simplest books. Bowman requested a tutor and special education testing, but Ronald' fifth-grade teacher said there was no cause for alarm.
Last summer, Bowman enrolled Ronald at Central Christian, a St. Petersburg private school. He lasted less than two weeks.
"They told me he was four years behind," Bowman said. "He's headed for a criminal life. Nobody's going to hire him if he can't read."
Ronald is embarrassed by his troubles in school, and he fears his classmates will tease him if they find out he has a hard time reading.
"I'm doing a lot better than I used to because my mom makes me read every night," he says sheepishly.
Bowman fears her son will never catch up to other kids his age.
"They were just giving him the grades," she says angrily. "They were just passing him along."
Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6241 or at firstname.lastname@example.org