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No Holding Back: All We Need To Do is Follow The Law

July 13, 2008

By Steven Malanga

Georgia joined several other states and major school systems, including Florida, Texas, New York City and Chicago, in requiring that students pass standardized tests to be promoted to the next grade.

Students unable to demonstrate basic skills on the state’s test in certain grades must retake the test. If they fail again, they are supposed to be retained so they can acquire those skills before trying to master more challenging material in the next grade.

But the Journal-Constitution’s report showed that most students are promoted in spite of the law. In Clayton County, for example, 97 percent of students who failed the retest —- or simply didn’t take the retest—- were promoted anyway. When asked why, the district issued a statement that said, “The philosophy of prior administrators was to promote students who failed and provide them remediation.”

Oh, I see. The law says that students unable to pass the state’s test ought to be retained, but Clayton County school officials have a different philosophy. Their philosophy is that they don’t have to follow the law.

Across the state, school districts promoted students who did not even take the retest, which is clearly required for all students before they can even be considered for exceptions to the retention rule.

As the Journal-Constitution reported, “About one in five students missed the retest after failing a high-stakes CRCT in 2006 and 2007. Eighty percent were promoted anyway.”

Noncompliance by public school officials with legal mandates is an enormous obstacle to education reform. Even if one thinks that this particular policy on social promotion is misguided, public school employees are not entitled to flout legally mandated attempts at reform.

Public schools don’t belong to the people who work in them. They belong to the public that pays for them and sends their children to them. If the public, through its elected representatives, wishes to require that students demonstrate basic skills on a state test before promotion to the next grade, school employees are obligated to abide by that policy, even if they doubt its wisdom.

Imagine that state employees at the Department of Driver Services decided that passing the vision test was an unreasonable requirement for receiving a driver’s license. No one would say it would be proper for them to subvert that legal requirement, even if they objected as a matter of professional judgment or conscience.

Educators not good judges

Certainly, policy-makers should consider input from practitioners when adopting or revising those legal requirements, but public employees are not some sort of Supreme Court with final say over what the law should be. If public employees cannot do what the public has asked them to do, they should stop taking the public’s money and resign their posts.

Resistance from school employees to the state’s social promotion policy is especially foolish because the evidence from a similar policy in Florida suggests that retaining students lacking basic skills is actually a beneficial approach. In a study I conducted with Marcus Winters that was published in Education Finance and Policy, we found that retained students in Florida significantly outperformed their comparable peers during the next two years.

In another study we published in the Economics of Education Review, we found that schools were not effective at identifying which students should be exempted from this test-based promotion policy and appeared to discriminate in applying these exemptions. That is, white students were more likely to be exempted by school officials in Florida from being retained, but those students suffered academically by being exempted.

Educators may believe that retaining students is counterproductive because their experience tells them that retained students later tend to have bad educational outcomes, including high dropout rates and low test scores. Of course, the problem with relying on these experiences is that educators do not know how those students would have fared had they not been retained.

Retained students often face severe challenges. That’s why they were retained. The same problems that led to their retention could also lead to bad outcomes in the future, including low achievement or dropping out. To know whether retention made those bad outcomes more or less likely we would have to compare how retained students did to students just like them who were not retained. Educators cannot judge this “counterfactual” with the naked eye. Educators sometimes cite studies claiming harm from retention, but most of those studies also failed to identify an appropriate control group against which to compare retained students, producing unjustified negative conclusions.

In the research I’ve done with Marcus Winters, we’ve been able to overcome these problems of educator experience and past studies by identifying a truly comparable control group. We did this in two ways. First, we compared the academic progress of retained students who barely failed Florida’s test to promoted students who barely passed. Whether students barely passed or barely failed is mostly the luck of getting an extra question right or wrong, so the two groups are almost identical. Ironically, students who had the bad luck of barely failing the state test benefited academically over the next two years.

No punishment feared

In another analysis we compared students who failed the test and were retained in the first year of the policy to students who failed the test the year before the policy went into effect. Both groups had the same low scores, but those who happened to be born a year later and were subject to the policy were likely to be retained, while those born a year earlier and were in third grade before the policy was adopted were likely to be promoted. Again, we found that students subject to the retention policy learned more over the next two years.

The point is that Georgia policy-makers had good reason to believe that linking promotion to the next grade to demonstrating basic skills on the state test was a desirable policy.

Educators and administrators lack the authority to reverse that policy, yet they obviously feel free to do so. They feel entitled to undermine public policy because they believe they control the schools, not the public. As a matter of practice, they do control the schools because they have remarkable latitude to do what they want without fear of repercussions.

I’ll wager that not a single superintendent, principal or teacher will lose his or her job or be sanctioned in any way for this statewide flouting of the law.

Until we are willing to take back control of our schools by insisting that educators and administrators follow the law and by punishing those who refuse, schools will continue to be run for the benefit of those who work in them rather than the children who attend them or the taxpayers who pay for them.

Original Source:



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