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Promotion Policies Modified: One Size Doesn't Fit All

Share Schools in some communities are taking some of the sting out of tough promotion policies by implementing special transition classes and allowing more teacher and principal input into promotion decisions. Today, Education World takes a look at three urban school districts -- Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee -- and their recent modifications to promotion policies.

Some urban school districts are taking the sting out of tough promotion policies by establishing transition grades and reinstituting traditional teacher assessments of student work.

Three of the school districts -- Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit -- have modified their promotion policies or are currently considering doing so. Those modifications are not a signal that the school districts are going back to the days of social promotion, school officials say. Rather, they are acknowledging that a "one size fits all" promotion policy doesn't necessarily benefit all children in all circumstances.

High-stakes tests -- timed, standardized tests that determine who is promoted to the next grade and who stays back -- are still part of the promotion process in many school districts. But some districts are now providing for a review or an appeal for students who flunk the tests. The review focuses on other achievement factors, including what teachers and principals have to say about a student's work as a whole.

School districts are also spending several millions of dollars on intensive remediation programs, including summer school programs and transition grades with small class sizes and a focus in core subjects. Transition grades are for students not quite ready for the next level because they are failing one or more core subjects. Transition grades focus on remediation to get students up to grade level.


Creating a transition grade for grade 8 students (called 8T) was the solution the Milwaukee Public Schools implemented to accommodate large numbers of grade 8 students not eligible to go on to high school this fall. At the end of the school year, 29 percent of the eighth-grade students -- 1,809 students -- had not met the district's criteria for promotion under the city's new policy, said Michael Szerwinski, assessment administrator for the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Keeping back large numbers of students presented a practical problem to the school district. "After much discussion around the community and at school sites, a plan was developed that said two things could happen to these students: They could either be retained at their current site or attend a different site at a high school setting," Szerwinski told Education World. Those assigned to 8T may attend high school but will not gain full freshman status until they meet the district's criteria.

"The idea was not so much to punish and isolate them, but to give them the extra support they need," Szerwinski said.

Milwaukee is a decentralized school district; each school was free to determine how it would handle the transition grade, Szerwinski said. Some schools will house 8T students in a separate wing, and others will allow them to take some regular high school classes along with additional support classes. Some may also provide Saturday classes, before- and after-school classes, and evening classes. He estimates the cost of the transition program will be about $2.5 million.

"Basically, if they don't make if after a year, they will attend an alternative program through various partnership and small community schools in the city," he said. "The basic policy is that if they don't make it, we don't keep them in that cycle."


This summer, as a result of Detroit's promotion policy, approximately 25,000 elementary and middle school students attended the Detroit Public Schools summer school program. During this first year of the city's promotion policy, school officials have modified it to permit appeals that take a holistic approach to students' overall performance.

"We have not reversed our promotion policy," said Ronald Kar, curriculum director for the Detroit Public Schools. "We hold everyone accountable. But we are learning as we go with the policy."

Detroit Public Schools provides for two appeals: one prior to summer school for students required to attend and one after summer school for those students who have still not met the promotion criteria. For those not meeting the criteria, an appeal provides for the child's principal to review the student's past and present classroom performance.

"The principals see the big picture, and they know the child," Kar told Education World. The appeals process shows confidence in the principals' ability to fairly and compassionately determine whether the child is ready for the next grade, he said. "The appeals process is a safety net. It is a very reasonable, rational approach to make sure we are serving in the child's best interests."

The district's promotion policy requires students in grades 2, 3, 5, and 8 to receive at least a C in the core subjects, have 90 percent attendance or no more than nine unexcused absences during the second part of the school year, and score in the 11th percentile or higher on the Metropolitan Achievement Test (MAT) in order to be promoted. Those not meeting the criteria are required to attend summer school.

The promotion policy for students in grades 1, 4, 6, and 7 does not require the MAT tests but recommends that all students take the tests. Their promotion is based on attendance and report card marks.

The appeals process provides school officials with a way to reach a rational decision about retaining those students who do well in school but poorly on the MAT tests. "In some cases, we can't account for these anomalies, which are very, very few children," Kar said. Very few appeals have been filed, he said.


This Wednesday (August 23), the Chicago school district will consider taking the high stakes out of its four-year promotion policy. Chicago has the third largest urban school district in the nation, with more than 431,000 students attending 597 schools. The city's promotion policy has been based primarily on standardized test scores.

If the proposed amendment is adopted, teachers will have a say about students whose scores fall just below the proficiency standards set by the district.

The proposed amendment will provide for automatic reviews of those students whose scores fall within an 8-point range below the required standardized test scores. Teachers will consider several factors of student performance, including classroom grades, attendance, conduct, homework records, and classroom reading and math unit tests. Students whose scores fall below the 8-point range may request a review too.

The school district ended social promotion in 1996 and based promotion on the results of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills in reading and math. Since that time, about 41,000 grade 3, 6, and 8 students have been held back. Of the 25,072 referred to summer school this year, about 5,600 will be held back after attending the program.

However, schools officials say, they have proof student achievement is improving because fewer children are being retained. This year 71 percent of the eighth graders were promoted and 29 percent were held back. Last year 45 percent -- nearly 3,000 students -- were held back in that grade.

Significant jumps in promotion in grades 3 and 6 also occurred. About 75 percent of grade 6 students were promoted this year, compared with 54 percent in 1999. The number of students staying back dropped from 3,373 in 1999 to 1,845 this year.

The most remarkable improvement has been in grade 3. In previous years, more students stayed back than were promoted. In 1998 and 1999, 61 percent and 58 percent stayed back, respectively. This year, approximately 17 percent stayed back.


The study Ending Social Promotion: Results from the First Two Years reports that retained students continue to struggle. "The kids who are retained are not doing any better than the kids who are promoted," said John Q. Easton, deputy director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which conducted the study. The consortium, started in 1990, is an independent public research federation that implements school reform, assesses its progress over time, and supports school improvement in Chicago.

"I think [Chicago Public Schools] finally thought that keeping kids back wasn't such a good idea," Easton told Education World. In particular, Easton was critical of retaining grade 3 youngsters, maintaining the test is unreliable for that level and recommending the policy might be more appropriate for older students.


Although a growing number of policy makers support high-stakes testing as a way of fixing problems in education, some education organizations, such as the American Education Research Association (AERA) do not. AERA recently issued a position statement advising against basing decisions about a student's future on the results of one test. The Education World article Cautions Issued About High-Stakes Tests provides more information about AERA's guidelines to school leaders and policy makers.

Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
Copyright © 2005 Education World

Originally published 08/22/2000
Links last updated 02/08/2005