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Performance Based Grouping: The Cure for "Bad" Schools and Their Socially Promoted Students

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It does not appear that 2008 is going to be a good year for education. Reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has stalled in Congress and there is much debate on whether it should be fixed or eliminated altogether.  In California, Governor Schwarzenegger announced he is canceling his “Year of Education”, a self-promoted, ballyhooed campaign where education reform would be the state’s top priority. 


But all isn’t bleak for education. First, the public and Congress is finally recognizing the failings of NCLB; talks of eliminating it is a great thing for all students and public schools. Even better news is my message to our governor. Cheer up! You no longer have to cancel your plans for 2008 being the “Year of Education.”  We don’t need any stinkin’ money to make good reforms happen in public education. All we need are education leaders who have the guts to truly eliminate the one education practice that is responsible for low test scores, the achievement gap, and the escalating high school dropout rate.  That is social promotion, the practice of moving students onto the next grade level despite the fact they have failed at their current grade.


I can hear the shouts of protest from the California legislature and New York City's Mayor Bloomberg. They will claim they have banned social promotion from our public schools except in certain cases. True. So if students are passed forward, then curse those schools who are doing it; they are to blame. That might be true in the case of teachers who overinflate a student’s grade so he or she can pass. But the biggest culprits of socially promoting students are parents. A San Diego newspaper reported that 97 percent of the parents who had a child fail two or more classes in eighth signed a waiver asking that their child be moved on to high school and they were.  These statistics are probably replicated in schools all across our state.


The sad thing is, when students are socially promoted and placed in more difficult classes, do we really think they are going to be successful?  At my current high school position, the majority of high school students I meet are not proficient in fifth grade math skills. But they are placed in Algebra I classes because the state of California says they have to take the end-of-the year Algebra standardized test.  Then we wonder why so many students fail?  It is insane! It is something the California legislature should change immediately.


Look at the many English language learners in our schools. Does it make sense that we put them in seventh grade language arts classes just because they happen to be twelve years old? The tragedy with social promotion is students get caught up in this cycle of failure, being moved forward to more difficult classes that they cannot pass. No wonder they eventually dropout of school.


For the record, I’m not suggesting retention is the answer either. I don’t think we need 16 year-olds in fifth grade. Our whole education system needs to be changed from having students solely grouped by age, but also by their abilities.  An elementary school in the Washington D.C. area developed a performance-ability system where children who needed the extra time to be successful in school were given it. Students were moved forward to a more difficult level only once they had been tested and shown they were proficient. In four years, their Hispanic and black students went from 44 percent proficiency in math and language arts, up to 88 percent.  

If we’re going to test students, doesn’t it make sense we do it with a particular purpose that benefits students and isn’t used just to compare schools? This system makes so much sense and has proven to be so successful that I don’t understand why there isn’t a rush to duplicate it. Despite change being the emphasis this political campaign season, I think education is too entrenched in the status-quo.  However, this is a win-win situation. Students who are bright are not kept in classes below their level and students who need extra time get it. Teachers no longer have to teach to five different levels in a class.


Many people in education might think this is “tracking,” the much maligned process that most European countries do but isn’t done here because it was considered racist in the seventies. But it isn’t tracking. All students eventually learn the same curriculum; they just get to go at the pace they need. Besides, what is more racist than passing students forward despite the facts they can’t do the work?


 If our government truly wants to reform education, I suggest they and education leaders begin by looking into some type of performance-ability system.  It truly would be in the best interest of the students and our schools. Then our “Year of Education” could turn into a “Generation of Education”, where schools are finally giving all students the skills and knowledge they need to become successful in the 21st century.



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Debra Craig is writer whose articles have been published nationwide. She is also the author of two books, the most recent one called, "Welcome to My Nightmare, I mean, Classroom: A Teacher in the Trenches Shatters the Myths, Lies, and Half-truths (more...)
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