Friday, December 23, 2011

TN bill would force failing eighth-graders to stay behind

A state lawmaker wants Tennessee schools to stop promoting eighth-graders to the ninth grade when they are not academically ready.

Teachers acknowledge that the practice — called social promotion — is fairly common, but state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, filed a bill that would force teachers to retain eighth-grade students who have failing grades at the end of the year or do not demonstrate basic skills in one or more subjects of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program.

If the law had been in effect this year, at least 8,000 Tennessee eighth-graders would have been held back because that’s how many scored below the basic level in reading on the state exams they took in the spring of this year.

State Board of Education Executive Director Gary Nixon supports the proposal, but other teachers and school administrators fear it could lead to a higher dropout rate among embarrassed teenagers. “One reason we don’t retain is because of the research showing what happens when they get retained. … All the kids know, and hopelessness is the bigger issue,’’ said H.G. Hill Middle School Principal Connie Gwinn, an educator of 31 years.

Under Kelsey’s plan, students with disabilities would be exempt. All other students would have the opportunity to attend summer school, elevate their grades and go on to high school with their classmates in the fall. Opponents of the bill insist schools would need more money to fund additional intervention programs in the summer.

But Kelsey said something has to be done because too many students are coming out of high school without basic reading, math or other skills. “This will help our graduation rate and ensure students who enter ninth grade will succeed there,” he said. “Unfortunately, we set many of them up for failure right now.”

Roughly 20,000 Tennessee students in grades 4-8 score below basic each year but get promoted anyway, and find themselves unsuccessful in high school, the lawmaker said.

Kelsey said this bill is a natural progression in education reform. In 2010, legislators enacted a law requiring TCAPs to count for up to 25 percent of a student’s final grade. Earlier this year, lawmakers agreed to make third grade a gateway year, meaning that in 2012 students in the third grade must score “basic’’ or above in reading to enter the fourth grade.

Every spring, students in grades 3-8 are tested on grade-level reading, math, social studies and science on the TCAP. Depending on how many questions they answer correctly, they land in one of the following levels: below basic grade level, basic, proficient or advanced. In reading, for example, eighth-graders answer about 50 reading questions. Those answering about 85 percent correctly are considered advanced; those answering 41 percent or fewer are “below basic.”

Tennessee has joined Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas, and the Chicago and New York City school districts in implementing certain gateway grades for promotion.

Kelsey is confident this latest proposal will be adopted. The state board of education favors ending social promotion for third and eighth grades. “The state board is supportive of assuring students who are promoted have the skills to be successful in the next grade,” Nixon said.

Teachers and school administrators agree that retaining students in younger grades is more beneficial to the student. “The majority of our retentions are in kindergarten,” said Yvonne Smith, elementary supervisor for Wilson County Schools. “The earlier you can catch a child and find out what they are lacking, takes less time to get them caught up ... plus from a social aspect, it’s not as hard on them.” It may take 30 minutes of intervention per day in kindergarten, versus four hours per day for struggling fourth-graders, she said.

Wilson County school board member Vikki Adkins said retaining students would lead to overcrowding at the eighth-grade level because the failing students would join the new eighth-graders coming into the school. “It may mean a lot of portables in middle schools,” Adkins said. “I would be opposed to any legislation like this.”

Metro Associate Superintendent for High Schools Jay Steele said he’s not in favor of the bill because students fall behind for different reasons and should not all be retained.

“There is no reason a 17-year-old child should be in an eighth-grade classroom, so that’s where I think flexibility has to be built in so that a district can decide on a case-by-case basis what’s best for the child,” Steele said.

Metro Schools had already planned its own intervention program for over-aged middle school students more than a year ago, but the $1.5 million initiative has yet to begin. Currently, about 750 ninth- and 10th-graders older than their classmates are still struggling and not expected to earn enough class credits to graduate with their peers.

To support his argument, Kelsey points to a study done at the University of Colorado that analyzed Florida’s social promotion policy. Marcus Winters measured third-graders who failed state exams by a few points and were retained, put in summer school and then paired with high-quality teachers. He compared them with third-graders who barely passed exams and were not retained. Winters said he found a large increase in math and reading scores of the students retained.

“The long-term effect that we are most interested in, we can’t see yet, because our students aren’t old enough, like high school graduation rates and whether they go to college or how they do in the labor market,” Winters said. Research on ending social promotion in sixth through eighth grades is virtually nonexistent or has shown no real effect, he said.

A Chicago study found its dropout rates didn’t change after the system stopped social promotion.

In Georgia, which has gateway grades in third, fifth and eighth grades, school districts ignored the law and promoted failing kids anyway.

Bellevue Middle School grandparent Tonia Mattison said the system is flawed all around. Her grandson, a fifth-grader, lives with her and performs at the basic level on exams, but she pays for private tutoring.

She said eighth-graders should not be penalized because their parents or teachers never intervened. “Denying them at that age level is not something that just started at eighth grade. If there is a problem, isn’t it a problem to rectify at an earlier age?”


Class war as British universities seek to break 'middle-class monopoly'

Students applying to university will have checks made on their school and family background under a move to create a more diverse student population.

Two thirds of universities will use data covering students’ social class, parental education or school performance next year to give the most disadvantaged candidates a better chance of getting on to degree courses, reports the Daily Telegraph.

For the first time next year, they will be required to set targets for the number of disadvantaged students being admitted in a move that coincides with a sharp rise in tuition fees. It represents an escalation of the current rules that merely require institutions to generate more applications.

Figures suggest that more than 20,000 students at almost 100 universities are already admitted to degree courses each year using contextual data and this number could rise in 2012 and beyond. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills insisted that it was 'valid and appropriate' to use this information to pick out applicants with 'potential'.

Private schools will be alarmed at the move as this scheme risks penalising academic pupils from top performing schools.

In the latest study, researchers surveyed almost 100 universities on their use of contextual information. The report, by the organisation Supporting Professionalism in Admissions, which advises universities on admissions policies, found that 41.5 per cent of institutions used this data to admit students in autumn 2011.

But it said that almost 63 per cent of universities 'indicated that they plan to use it in the future', including for next year’s admissions when tuition fees will rise from £3,000 to a maximum of £9,000 a year.

The survey suggested that universities aligned to the elite Russell Group, which represents Oxford, Cambridge and other leading institutions were 'more likely to be using contextual data' than other institutions.

Almost 23 per cent of universities said they were planning to make 'lower offers' to some candidates from poor backgrounds — potentially awarding them places with worse A-level grades than students from top schools. This was up from 18 per cent in 2011.


Australia: A good school culture can have powerful effects

Religious schools generally have an advantage in that respect. And, being private, they don't have to put up with disruptive students

A SCHOOL in Melbourne's east founded on the principles of Christian Science has outperformed selective-entry government school Melbourne High in this year's VCE results.

Melbourne High has dropped off the list of top three schools for the first time since figures were made publicly available in 2003, outflanked by Mac.Robertson Girls High, Huntingtower School and Loreto Mandeville Hall.

Huntingtower School in Mount Waverley, an independent school based on the teachings of Christian Science, has enjoyed a meteoric rise through the rankings. In 2003, 15 per cent of its subject scores were 40 or above, and it was outperformed by 63 schools. This year Huntingtower School placed second, with 36.6 per cent of subject scores 40 or above. VCE subjects are marked out of 50, with a study score of 30 the average, and more than 40 considered an excellent result.

Huntingtower principal Sholto Bowen said the school encouraged its students to support one another rather than compete against each other.

"We are creating a sense they are all part of a team and not trying to beat [one another]. We are not trying to actually beat other schools," Mr Bowen said. "Every student knows it's their responsibility to help every other student when they are feeling stressed or under pressure. I don't think we do anything that couldn't be done by anyone - we are just creating that culture of kindness and understanding and support."

Mr Bowen said the school believed that every child expressed the infinite intelligence of God. "We want them to get the idea they have no limits," he said.

Christian Science is derived from the writings of its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, and the Bible. No doctrinal instruction in religion is given at Huntingtower and all faiths are welcomed.

The school's website says that while Christian Science is perhaps best known for its emphasis on healing by spiritual means, the wishes of parents of Huntingtower students for medical attention for their children is respected at all times.

Kahli Joyce, one of 57 VCE students at Huntingtower, attributes the school's success to a strong network between students and teachers.

"It was not only about the academic side of things, we also took time out to bond as a year level," said Kahli, who hopes to study biomedicine at Melbourne University.

Year 12 students attended a weekend retreat early in the year, where they discussed team and individual goals, and wrote positive affirmations about every student.

"Throughout the year we were always together as a year level, and in the common room we would take time out to find out how everyone was going. That really helped give us a positive learning environment."

Meanwhile, Jewish schools also performed extremely well, with Bialik College, Yeshivah College and Mount Scopus Memorial College all in the top 10. The top Jewish schools were Bialik College in Hawthorn and Yeshivah College in St Kilda East, which both had 33.3 per cent of study scores 40 or above.


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