Prov. Schools Accused of Passing Failing Students

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


The Providence School Department says it is attempting to address a longtime practice of promoting students who are failing a certain subject or grade simply to keep them on the same track as their peers.

The practice, often referred to as “social promotion” by educators, has come under scrutiny across the country in recent years as reformers have tried to turn around struggling schools, particularly in urban areas.

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While the city has no formal policy on social promotion, teachers say the problem often takes place at the elementary and middle school levels, creating an inadequate feeder system to the high schools. As a result, students enter high school several grade levels behind and are more likely to drop out.

More students decide to quit school in the ninth grade than any other year, according to dropout numbers reported on the Rhode Island Department of Education’s website. The city’s 2009/10 dropout rate was 23.4 percent.

“In current [School] Board policy, there is nothing [in particular] pertaining to promotion of students from grade to grade, with the exception of the requirement of certain numbers of credits for our high school students under the graduation policy,” said Christina O’Reilly, spokeswoman for the Providence School Department. “The district is aware of concerns expressed by teachers and others about social promotion, consistency, and rigorous standards for all students. Our aligned curriculum goes a long way toward addressing those standards, but is not sufficient alone to ensure that students are truly meeting expectations as they progress through grades.”

The Students Know

O’Reilly said the school district has created a “Grading Task Force” comprised of teachers, administrators, parents and community members that has begun developing a grading policy that will eventually be presented to the School Board.

But for the time being, teachers say they are tied to a “no-win situation” that often forces them to choose between passing a struggling student or running the risk of being labeled a “bad teacher.” Daniel Wall, who teaches at the Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex, said the practice of social promotion has long been an issue of concern and it’s something he says the students are aware of.

Wall said he met last year with a freshman about his failing grades and the potential that he may be held back. The student looked him in the eye and told him that he had heard those threats too many times and in the end, he was always allowed to advance.

“Then he asked me a logical question,” Wall said. “Why should he believe that high school is any different? Unfortunately students have learned a lesson; that they will be advanced regardless of whether or not they have achieved academic standards. We must do something to correct this if we truly want to improve education in Providence.”

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Mayor Taveras: No Social Promotion, Period

School districts across the country have been ramping up efforts to end social promotion after studies have suggested the practice has little value. A 2009 RAND Corporation study found that struggling students in New York City were more likely to benefit from increased attention at critical grade levels rather than being moved along with their peers.

But it is easier for officials to claim they want to end the practice as opposed to actually doing it, according to Wall. Too often students enter high school unprepared because they’ve either been socially promoted or moved through summer school at a rapid pace that allows students to make up for an entire year of school in just over a month.

Still, according the Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, the practice is unacceptable. In an interview with GoLocalProv late last year, Taveras said social promotion can lead to a cycle that can become a “big problem.”

“I think that you have to address it and the issue on that is that there should not be any social promotion in our schools, period,” Taveras said. “Social promotion shouldn’t have a place in our schools. And we’re not doing anyone any good by doing that. And so, to the extent that it’s happening, we need to bring it to the light of day and address it.”

Commissioner Gist: Provide More Support

Former School Board President Kathy Crain agreed with Taveras. She said promoting students just to move them out of the system is unfair to everyone involved and called on the school district to create alternative programs designed specifically to meet the learning needs of failing students.

“Otherwise, we're setting these kids up to fail,” Crain said. “Ironically, this practice also takes time, attention and resources away from our other students who are proficient, and judges our teachers on false assumptions. It's a practice from which nobody benefits.”

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Education Commissioner Deborah Gist said schools should offer differentiated instruction, additional instruction in school, or supplementary educational services to struggling students, but she did not rule out the practice of social promotion altogether.

“School districts are responsible for setting standards for student promotion, and we expect all districts and schools to promote students who are prepared to succeed at the next grade level,” Gist said. “When students are not fully prepared to succeed, schools may still promote the students – but the school must also provide the support that these students need to continue their education and to keep up academically with their peers.”

Important Work to be Done

For now, the school district says its task force is working on addressing social promotion. O’Reilly said the group has identified a number of challenging issues and supports that need to be in place in order to proceed with a proper grading policy.

She said the key is to provide supports and safety nets that remediate students who are falling behind while improving practices around consistency of instruction and grading. She also said setting clear expectations for students and families is a top priority.

“There is important work that must be done to continue to align instruction and assessment across schools, and to build supports for students and educators so that we can address the needs of our students and position all students for success,” O’Reilly said.

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