Yardsticks vary by county

Student's fate - pass or fail - decided differently

Student's fate - pass or fail - decided differently

April 27, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

Some call it failing, while others use the phrase "held back." In school-speak, the term used when a student does not pass from one grade to the next is "retained."

All three counties in the Eastern Panhandle approach passing or failing a student differently.

Berkeley County's policy dictates a teacher must make the final decision on whether to hold back a student. That came into question recently after 10 percent of the teachers who answered an optional survey said a principal or school administrator has "pressured, forced or encouraged" them to pass a student they felt should have been retained.

Board of Education member Patrick Murphy had asked that revisions be made to the county's promotion/retention policy, and that teachers review it. His motion failed by a 4-1 vote.


Of the county's 1,200 teachers, 648 answered Murphy's anonymous survey.

The 64 teachers who said they had been forced or encouraged to promote a student were asked to briefly describe the circumstances. A student's age prompted 18 promotions, while 12 said the threat of having the student again led to promotion.

Pressure from parents caused nine promotions, while six teachers said a principal pressured them to change permanent records.

Three teachers said they were pressured to pass a student so the student would be eligible for athletics, according to survey results.

Some teachers may not realize that they alone decide whether a student should pass or fail, Murphy said.

Deputy Superintendent Frank Aliveto said that may be true, especially since the county hires several new teachers each year.

Aliveto said that this fall, before the next school year begins, he will go over the policy with every teacher and administrator.

Policy changes

In addition to making a few minor diction changes, Murphy had hoped to change one portion of the county's policy regarding elementary school students. The policy indicates that a student's "best interests" should determine whether he or she is held back. Murphy wanted to change "best interests" - a phrase he described as ambiguous - to "academic performance."

Speaking sarcastically, Murphy said the idea to pass a student based on his or her academic performance was revolutionary.

Murphy said he also wanted to remove a provision in the policy that indicated a student could not be held back more than once per grade level.

Aliveto said that mandate is no longer part of the policy.

Students who are held back once are 10 percent more likely not to graduate. That percentage increases to 25 if the student is held back twice, Aliveto said.

If promoting unprepared students leads to more graduating, Murphy questioned who the county wants to graduate. Handing out diplomas to just any student is not a good idea, he said.

In the 2001-02 school year in Berkeley County, 63 kindergartners were retained. In first grade, 52 students were retained, while 24 second-graders were held back.

From third grade to eighth grade, about a dozen or less students per grade level were held back.

In high school, 228 ninth-graders did not advance to 10th grade. Ninety-five sophomores were held back, as were 40 juniors and 25 seniors, according to statistics provided by Murphy.

Murphy proposed no changes to the policy for high school students, which bases retention on the number of course credits a student receives each year.

Mediocre work

By the time students reach high school, some may believe mediocre work will have no consequences. Not only are those students harmed, but the average student lumped together in the same classroom is affected, Murphy said.

A teacher in Jefferson County, Murphy said he has held back students.

He once retained a fifth-grader who initially grinned at him the whole year. The following year, that boy was one of Murphy's highest-performing students. When the student graduated from high school, he visited Murphy to let him know he had made it, Murphy said.

In Jefferson County, teachers also have the final say on whether to promote or retain a student.

Broken down into two sections, the policy first deals with kindergartens through sixth-graders.

"The decision to promote or retain shall be made with the long-term interest of the student in mind to provide the optimum opportunity to be successful in future educational endeavors," the policy reads. "Retention should only occur when it is apparent that the future academic success of the student is in doubt and when, in the opinion of the classroom teacher, the student would not succeed with a more advanced level of instruction. "

Parents should be involved early on, and should work with their child's teachers to help the student, the policy indicates.

"The decision to retain rests ultimately with the classroom teacher; however, parents and/or guardians, building principal or other teachers play an integral role in the planning and implementing of this decision," the policy reads.

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