Published: January 26, 2005
By Alan Richard
Florida could become the first state to require students to pass a reading test to advance at every grade level, under a plan approved by the state school board last week.
The plan requires lawmakers’ approval, but support for limited bans on “social promotion” has been strong for years in the Republican-controlled legislature.
Commissioner of Education John Winn said in an interview that the plan would take hold only gradually if passed into law.
The state already requires most 3rd graders to pass a reading test—normally the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test—before they advance to 4th grade. High school students similarly must pass an FCAT reading test or an alternative before they can graduate. Low-scoring 3rd graders must attend three-week summer reading classes, which enable some students to escape retention.
The Florida board of education voted unanimously on Jan. 18 to ask the legislature for the authority to expand the social-promotion ban into other grades. In social promotion, students who have fallen short academically are advanced to the next grade to keep them with their peers.
Mr. Winn said last week that he would recommend the ban start with 4th and 5th graders—students who already have been subject to the 3rd grade requirements. State board members then could determine how swiftly the program would reach other grades.
“This could take 10 years” to implement, the commissioner said.
Catalyst or Quick Fix?
The existing policy against social promotion has improved reading skills among 3rd graders and has been a catalyst for higher student achievement in the elementary grades, Mr. Winn said. Expanding the program to all grades would keep students with poor literacy skills from advancing through school without the preparation they need, he added.
Florida would be the first state to link student retention to standardized-test scores at all grade levels, if the plan proceeds. Eight states now link retention to test scores at some grade levels, typically in grades 3, 5 and 8, according to the Education Week Research Center.
But critics warn that the plan may need more thought.
Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, said the union was surprised by the state board’s plan.
The union, a merged affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, favors leaving the decision to retain or promote students in the hands of teachers and parents, rather than judging pupils by a test score.
“When you have a child that’s behind in a particular grade, then I think you need to launch all kinds of special attention on the kids. That’s something that’s lacking,” Mr. Pudlow said.
School district leaders may also be skeptical of the plan to end social promotion in all grades.
“We’ve never been a big proponent of social promotion, but keeping a student back a grade level isn’t the only way to address a student’s shortcomings” on tests, said Connie M. Milito, the director of government relations for the 183,000-student Hillsborough County schools.
Commissioner Winn said the state board’s plan fits into Florida’s other strategies for improving public schools. “Social promotion is just the symptom” of the problems that exist in teaching children to read, he said. “What we need to work on is better teaching and learning.”
Chance for Approval
It’s not yet clear how the legislature will respond to the state board’s plan.
Towson Fraser, a spokesman for Speaker of the House Allen Bense, a Republican, said the speaker had not reviewed the state board’s plan. But the speaker backed the 3rd grade program when it was approved in 2002, he said.
“The idea that you just keep pushing kids along when they’re not prepared to be better students is not something he agrees with,” Mr. Fraser said on behalf of the speaker.
Mr. Winn and other supporters of expanding the social-promotion ban cited recent test data as proof that the 3rd grade program is something to build on. Sixty-six percent of the state’s 3rd graders scored at acceptable levels in reading in 2004, while only 57 percent did in 2001, according to the state.
Most 3rd graders who have been retained under the social-promotion ban were able to improve their reading scores enough to move on to 4th grade the following year. The program exempts some students who are learning English, or who do not take state tests because of disabilities.
Also, some students are allowed to show progress using portfolios or tests other than the FCAT. Still other low-scoring 3rd graders can advance after taking three weeks of remedial-reading classes and passing a test during the summer.
Now in its second year, the 3rd grade policy resulted in about 28,000 retentions in the 2003-04 school year. Fewer than half that number of pupils were retained in the other elementary grades.
Mr. Winn said that retaining more students would not result in more high school dropouts, as critics claim, because more children would improve their basic skills at earlier ages. School leaders should not panic over the proposed changes, he said.
“You will not see the governor or me proposing massive retention in grades that we already know that we haven’t experienced success in,” the commissioner said.
Vol. 24, Issue 20, Pages 22,27