Promote Educational Success, Not Failure

By Gregory Malhoit

Vol. 21, No. 1, 1999 p. 18

North Carolina's State Board of Education seems determined to adopt a "quick fix" education policy that could hold back thousands of students who fail state-administered multiple-choice tests.

The policy is grade retention-an approach that has been experimented with in many school systems and studied by educational researchers. After decades of research, many have concluded that grade retention does far more harm than good, increasing discipline problems and dropout rates while hurting long-term student achievement.

Grade retention ignores what we know about the development of human intelligence: namely that children learn at different rates, just as they grow in spurts. They are human beings with unique skills and abilities, most of which cannot be measured by one multiple-choice test. We also know that some students don't test well, and that tests are not a perfect measure of what students know. Nevertheless, the proposed grade promotion policy places total reliance on a test score. It discounts students' classroom work, and encourages teachers to teach to the test.

Grade retention may also violate the civil rights of minority, special-education and non-English speaking students. The State Board knows that at-risk children are not currently passing the tests, and that these students will be most dramatically impacted by the proposed policy. Yet the State Board doesn't have a realistic plan to guarantee at-risk students an equal opportunity to be promoted.

Higher standards for students must come with an investment of new dollars. Our lowest-performing students won't stand much of a chance of meeting the new standards if we do not have smaller classes, summer school, after-school, and tutorial programs.

The State Board of Education should determine exactly what new resources are needed to provide at-risk students with programs that can make up for years of educational neglect in order to give every child a fair chance to be promoted. The State Board must insist on an up-front commitment of necessary dollars by lawmakers. If the money isn't there, then the policy should not go into effect.

It's time for parents and the public to look beyond the political rhetoric and start asking some tough questions of our state's education leaders. In the rhetoric and debate over social promotion, our leaders seem to have lost sight of the fact that we are talking about children. Making judgments about children's futures based on a bureaucratic benchmark of what is "above average" is just another way of denying our children the right to be human.

Gregory Malhoit is director of the North Carolina Education and Law Project, a Raleigh-based education policy and legal advocacy center that promotes improved educational opportunities for at-risk students.