By Joshua Benton
For fifth-graders having trouble with the TAKS test, everything comes down to a familiar factor: Location, location, location.
Texas’ law against social promotion is supposed to set uniform standards, requiring students to pass both the math and reading TAKS to be promoted to the sixth grade. But districts are given wide leeway in deciding who actually gets held back, and – according to newly released data from 2005, the most recent available – they use it in vastly different ways.
For instance, the Klein school district in suburban Houston promoted 98.5 percent of its fifth-graders who had failed the TAKS reading test repeatedly. Wichita Falls schools, in contrast, promoted just 4.8 percent.
Austin ISD promoted 90 percent of its fifth-graders who repeatedly failed the TAKS math test. But the Georgetown district – a 20-minute drive away – promoted only 20 percent.
“There seems to be a lot of variation in the way people interpret the law,” said Dawson Orr, Wichita Falls’ superintendent.
Despite their divergent results, officials in several districts said they are working within the law, which leaves the final decision about promotion to the child’s parents and educators.
In all, Texas schools ended up promoting about 70 percent of its worst-performing fifth-graders through a tool known as the grade placement committee.
“Our parents very much want to see their children move on and have those upper-grade experiences,” said Holly Hughes, assistant superintendent for elementary education in Clear Creek ISD near Houston. “We work hard with each family to determine what’s best for each child.”
Promotion without skills
Social promotion is the practice of pushing kids along to the next grade regardless of their academic abilities. In the 1990s, as Texas developed its testing system, some legislators believed students were being promoted through the system without the basic reading and math skills they need to succeed.
So in 1999, then-Gov. George Bush signed into law the Student Success Initiative, whose effects begin with the Class of 2013 as it makes its way through the Texas public schools.
When those children reached third grade, in 2003, they had to pass the TAKS reading test to be promoted. Two years later, they had to pass both the math and reading TAKS as fifth-graders. And in 2008, they will have to pass the eighth-grade test, again in math and reading.
The policy was not imposed without controversy. Many educators said retaining students damaged their future potential by isolating them socially and increasing the chance that they eventually would drop out of high school. A number of studies have shown that being held back a year is one of the strongest predictors of whether a child will drop out.
But the law includes an out. Even if a student has failed the TAKS test three times, the student can still be promoted by the grade placement committee – a three-person group made up of the child’s parent, teacher and principal.
“The process puts a lot of weight on one data point” – a TAKS score, said Nancy Tarvin, executive director of elementary curriculum in Leander ISD near Austin. “So I’m glad we have a grade placement committee that can look beyond that one data point and make a sound decision for a child.”
Leander is among the school districts that use the committee’s promotion power the most. In 2005, Leander promoted 94 percent of its fifth-graders who repeatedly failed the reading TAKS and 91 percent of those who repeatedly failed in math.
Ms. Tarvin said those figures are not the result of any districtwide policy. “We look at each child individually,” she said. “We get the folks who know the student the best together and make the decision on whether a student will be successful in the next grade. There’s no district line.”
According to state documents, the grade placement committee is required to determine whether the student, “given additional accelerated instruction, is likely to perform on grade level during the next school year.” The decision to promote must be unanimous.
Statewide, schools were optimistic about their kids’ abilities. In 2005, they used grade placement committees to promote failing fifth-graders about 70 percent of the time. That’s significantly higher than the rate for third-graders, where the figure is 49 percent.
Jay Greene, head of the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas, said it may be that schools are worried about the social implications of retaining students as they grow older. But he believes that many students promoted by grade placement committees are probably being poorly served, no matter how well-meaning the school’s intentions.
He studied the results of a similar policy against social promotion for third-graders in Florida and found that students forced to repeat the grade ended up learning more over the next two years than those who were promoted.
“Put it this way: Students who were promoted are leaving fifth grade with less knowledge than students who were retained have entering fifth grade,” he said.
The wide variation in how districts used their promotion power shows that educators are not skilled at consistently picking which students would benefit from retention and which would not, he said.
‘The law is the law’
Dr. Orr, the Wichita Falls superintendent, said he dislikes having to retain students because of the increased dropout risk. But his district retains at a high rate because he believes the law requires it to.
“I don’t think the law is particularly wise, but it’s not vague,” he said. “The law is the law, and we’re going to work with it in good faith.”
In districts that have been the most aggressive about retention, policies are affecting enrollment patterns.
In the school year that finished this spring, Wichita Falls had a nearly equal number of students in first through eighth grades – somewhere between 1,070 and 1,127. The only exception was the sixth grade, which had only 971 students. That’s the Class of 2013, which has already had its weakest students siphoned off twice.
The big challenge, most agree, will come in 2008, when the Student Success Initiative tackles eighth grade. Public schools in Texas and elsewhere have had substantial success in raising elementary-school scores over the last decade. But older kids have proven more challenging.
For Texans, that’s been particularly true in math. Only 68 percent of eighth-graders passed the math TAKS last spring. That compares with passing rates of 90 percent in third grade and over 80 percent in fifth grade.
In addition, holding back an older child is generally considered substantially riskier than with an 8-year-old. Shane Jimerson, a professor of education at the University of California at Santa Barbara who studies retention policy, said that while policymakers may think social promotion is a problem, there’s no evidence that retaining a child is any improvement.
“A century of research reveals the deleterious effects of grade retention,” he said.