By Joshua Benton
Sherri Corum knows what fear looks like in the eyes of a third-grader.
“On test day, some of them come in with this blank look on their face,” said Ms. Corum, a third-grade teacher at Plano’s Weatherford Elementary. “You can tell they’re scared they might not do well.”
There’s a new reason to be scared.
On Tuesday, more than 300,000 third-graders will take the reading portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. And, for the first time, those who can’t pass a standardized test will face real consequences: They won’t be allowed to go to fourth grade.
State officials say about 45,000 kids will walk out of their classrooms Tuesday having earned a failing grade. What’s unclear is how many of those 45,000 will really end up repeating third grade.
Texas has built enough safety nets – or loopholes, depending on whom you ask – that no one knows how many kids will be held back because of the new standard.
“We just won’t know until kids take the test,” said Gary Dworkin, a sociology professor at the University of Houston who has studied retention.
The idea is to curb social promotion, the act of pushing children from one grade to the next simply because they’re a year older, not a year wiser.
Children who can’t succeed in one grade aren’t likely to suddenly blossom in the next one, the argument goes, so it’s better to retain them and let them master basic skills before moving to more complex ones.
“It is unfair to promote children through the school system if they can’t do the work,” said Texas Education Agency representative Adrienne Sobolak. “It’s unfair to the children, to their classmates and to their teachers.”
In Texas, as in most states, students tend to get passed along regardless of how they perform on the state test. In 2001, more than 37,000 third-graders failed the state’s reading test. Only 4,215, or 11.2 percent, of those were made to repeat the grade. The rest were promoted to fourth grade.
Setting the standard
The social promotion standard was part of the Student Success Initiative launched by the Legislature and Gov. George W. Bush in 1999. The initiative paid for extra teacher training, gave more money for early reading programs and required schools to target weak readers at an early age.
In all, the state has spent more than $500 million on the program. Tuesday’s test is the enforcement part of all that spending.
Students will need to answer 20 of the 36 questions they’ll face in order to pass. If they do, their school year proceeds as normal. But if they don’t:
* Students will be put immediately into an intense reading instruction program for five weeks.
* On April 30, those who failed will retake the TAKS. If they fail again, they’ll be expected to attend summer school.
* Finally, after summer school, two-time failers will be tested a third time.
After three failures, the student’s fate is in the hands of a grade placement committee made up of his parent, teacher and principal. If all three agree that the child should be promoted anyway, he is. If any of them disagrees, he’s retained.
Texas isn’t an innovator on this count – at least 22 states tie grade promotion to testing. Their experience suggests the new rules may not be as effective at retaining students as some would like.
North Carolina’s system is similar to what Texas is adopting. Students there get three chances to pass the Gateway test. If a student fails all three times, an appeals committee considers other evidence, such as reading grades. But the student’s principal gets final say.
The results: 7,401 fifth-graders failed the Gateway three times in 2001; only 1,995 ended up repeating the grade.
“The General Assembly built in all these safeguards for children – but then people started to get upset we weren’t retaining more of them,” said Louis Fabrizio, North Carolina public schools’ director of accountability services.
Florida has faced similar results. Nearly 60,000 fourth-graders failed last year’s Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which was supposed to be required for advancement to the fifth grade. But only 7,164 fourth-graders were held back.
“The standards were fairly loose,” said Lee Baldwin, senior director of assessment for Florida’s Orange County schools. “There were exemptions and exceptions that let a lot of students through.”
Something in common
The common thread: When promotion decisions are left to principals and teachers, they tend to promote at a higher rate than test results would support.
“There are children who blossom when they’re retained,” Ms. Corum, the Plano third-grade teacher, said. “But you really have to look at how the child is performing at things other than the test to make that decision.”
Florida legislators were so angered by the low number of retentions that they passed a new law reducing the number of exemptions allowed.
“There was frustration that the law was being ignored,” said Bill Edmonds, spokesman for the Florida Department of Education. “You won’t be able to make an end run around the law any more.”
North Carolina officials, in contrast, seem happy with the results they’ve seen.
“We don’t see this as a retention policy,” Mr. Fabrizio said. “We see it as a way to identify children who need additional help.”
Not all states give as much flexibility as the Texas plan.
Louisiana, for instance, doesn’t allow principals to overrule test scores. As a result, the state has failed up to 15 percent of its fourth- and eighth-graders since instituting a plan against social promotion in 2000.
In some schools in New Orleans, three-quarters of eighth-graders repeat the grade.
“We’re definitely retaining a lot of kids,” said Leslie Jacobs, a member of the state board of education. “There was a strong desire to deal with this population.”
Because Texas leaves the final decision up to principals, teachers and parents, it’s likely that standards will be applied differently in different districts.
Even within his Central Florida district, Dr. Baldwin said some schools were up to three times more likely to retain students than others. In 2001, some North Carolina school districts retained more than 65 percent of their failing students. But Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the state’s largest district, didn’t retain a single one.
A harmful practice?
Many principals and teachers believe retention harms children. They cite research that indicates students who fail a grade are more likely to drop out before graduation than those who are socially promoted.
“There are certainly instances when retention is viable,” said Connie Lewellen, the principal at Weatherford Elementary in Plano, who said her school rarely retains more than a single third-grader in any given year. “But I wouldn’t want a single test to be making the decision.”
But there’s evidence on both sides. Dr. Dworkin at the University of Houston has done several studies using Texas student data that he says indicate retaining a weak student helps more than it hurts – at least if it’s done in early grades.
“School people still are convinced that retention never works,” he said. “There’ll be some resistance there. If you delay retention until seventh or eighth grade, the kids will never catch up. But if you do it early, they can end up stronger for it.”
How many Texas children will end up facing that fate?
State officials predict an 85 percent passing rate on Tuesday’s test. Mr. Fabrizio said that in North Carolina, roughly three-quarters of the students who fail a Gateway test the first time pass on their second or third try. If that’s the case in Texas, more than 10,000 students would have their fate in the hands of grade placement committees this summer.
“The test looks real hard,” said Drew Gannon, an 8-year-old in Ms. Corum’s class. “I hope I pass.”