Wednesday, July 27, 2011


By Connie Llanos, Daily News Staff Writer-from the Contra Costa Times) |

07/25/2011 - Los Angeles Unified officials this month approved a plan to, once again, eliminate social promotion at the nation's second-largest school district.

A decade after the district launched its first effort to end the controversial practice of passing academically unprepared children to the next grade, officials plan to work on a new approach that is expected to ensure students advance only if they meet academic goals.

Taking a collaborative approach, district officials will ask teachers, parents and administrators to help create a standards-based promotion policy for the 2012-13 school year.

But already many question how the cash-strapped LAUSD will be able to craft a meaningful plan to deal with kids who have to be held back.

Tamar Galatzan, the San Fernando Valley school board member who proposed the change, conceded that budget concerns would inevitably be an issue. "But helping students succeed has to be more important than anything else we do as a district," she said.

"Promoting a student from one grade to another when he or she hasn't mastered, or in some cases even learned, the previous year's lessons, doesn't make any sense."

Social promotion is a name given to the unsanctioned practice of advancing students to the next grade even if they are failing classes. Despite the academic drawbacks, some people believe it is healthier for students' social development to remain with their peer group.

Since 1998, California has enacted legislation requiring all school districts in the state to craft standards-based promotion policies.

Originally, LAUSD officials said they would mandate retention of all elementary and middle school students who were not meeting grade-level standards - estimated to be about a third of those pupils.

That plan, which relied largely on getting kids at risk of failing access to after-school programs and summer sessions, was expected to cost some $140 million.

But it was eventually scaled back, because of concerns about cost and the impact retention would have on students.

Ultimately, the district mandated retention for students failing reading or English at the second and eighth grades and relied largely on sending struggling students to summer school in a last-ditch effort to make the progress needed to move up a grade.

LAUSD officials could not provide data on the number of students who are retained every year. But in 2010, about one-third of the district's third graders and eighth graders were not meeting state standards in reading.

Judy Elliott, LAUSD's chief academic officer, said the district was forced to cancel the standards-based promotion policy two years ago when state budget cuts forced the cancellation of summer school.

With or without the budget cuts though, Elliott said it is time for the district to revisit its policies.

"An institution this big needs to constantly review its policies," Elliott said.

Galatzan said the issue of social promotion has been on her radar since she was elected to the school board five years ago.

"It's the number one complaint I get from teachers and principals," Galatzan said.

"The problem is we have yet to define what a failing student is in this district."

Politically it has become popular to institute ambitious bans on social promotion, but research still shows mixed results for school districts that have moved forward with aggressive plans.

In Chicago, studies have shown that aggressive retention efforts have failed to improve the academic performance of students, and efforts have been scaled back.

In New York, efforts to ban social promotion resulted in more intervention for students at risk of failing, but very small numbers of retained students.

Still, a recent report by the Santa Monica-based think tank RAND Corp. showed that New York's promotion policies have led to marked improvement in students.

Julie Marsh, an associate professor at the University of Southern California who worked on the RAND study, said the research also showed that students who were held back did not have any negative socio-emotional impact.

Long Beach Unified has also had a standards-based promotion policy in place since 1996, which mandates that students in the first through fifth grade who fail to meet key benchmarks in reading and math by the end of an academic year are retained.

A steady 2.5 percent of students at Long Beach are retained every year, said spokesman Chris Eftychiou.

While budget cuts have forced Long Beach to eliminate summer school as well, Eftychiou said the retention and promotion policy has continued thanks in large part to cooperation from parents and teachers.

Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles and a veteran high school teacher, said LAUSD educators are ready to implement a policy that ensures all kids are prepared for school on day one of classes.

However LAUSD's financial problems, coupled with a track record for poor professional development, are a concern.

"The last time we had this conversation in this was in middle of a dot-com boom, a time where we could realistically talk about having interventions and supports for students," Fletcher said.

"Now every school site is on a budgetary starvation diet ... if they are going to try and reach this laudable goal of making sure every students meets the standard in their grade, we have to have supports in place - and the district is removing support after support right now."

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