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Failing Students Through Social Promotion, Poor Planning, and Skewed Testing Policies

Kerri Provost

February 28, 2011

The post about grade inflation (2/12/11) in the Hartford Public Schools created some discussion about whether or not such a practice was detrimental to the students. Some readers found that the practice could serve as a safety net, while others found it to simply present a false sense of hope.

There has yet to be any discussion of this issue among members of the Board of Education. I hear that if such discussion occurs, it will be in March. I still have not heard a peep from Superintendent Adamowski, David Medina (spokesperson for school system), or the principal at one of the schools practicing the questionable grade policy. To make this more interesting, while Medina is not responding to citizen inquiries about ethical practices, he has had the time to do some cheerleading for two superintendent candidates.

Troubles in the system. Troubles in the classrooms.

I have since been contacted by other teachers within the school system who are finding social promotion to be an even bigger concern. One has stated that his/her eleventh grade students are unable to read or write beyond a third grade level. Ideally, students in the eleventh and twelfth grades would be getting prepared for college-level work, but because of this inability to perform at grade level, such idealism does not play out. Students are apparently able to graduate from city high schools without being able to write a basic persuasive five-paragraph essay.

The preparation gap is something to be concerned about. According to Inside Higher Ed, less than 40% of black and Hispanic college students earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, as compared to roughly 60% of white students. This same article indicates the disparity in number of low income students even attending college (50%), as compared to middle-class (two-thirds) and high income students (80%). The reasons for such low admission and graduation rates are varied. Beyond not meeting entrance requirements, people may be unable to afford college or not understand what they have to gain from going. For those with no role models who have attended college, it might seem like “just some piece of paper” without meaning. Others might prefer to enlist in the military or enter directly into the workforce. Some travel. Some do nothing. For those who do enroll in college, many do not make it through, also for a number of reasons. The more fortunate find that they are gifted in a way that does not require them to earn a diploma. Other may be offered an enriching opportunity that entices them to drop out or put college on hold. But students also drop out because they have complicated personal lives, run out of ways to fund tuition, and fail to meet academic requirements. Teachers can not prepare students for all of these things, but for academic achievement, more success is expected.

Just as there are many reasons for why students drop out of or never attend college, there are just as many reasons for why students are underprepared in the first place. Though I work in the field of education, I will not pretend that all teachers are competent. Some do not teach well. Others, who are skilled, may lack resources in their schools; others may find classes difficult to conduct due to severe disciplinary problems or far too many students. We know that many parents are not as involved in their children’s educations as they could be; as a result, the importance of education is not always reinforced at home. There are students who have difficulty grasping the material and some who make no real attempt to do so. We know that truancy has been a problem in the Hartford school system, though some teachers have claimed that any attempt to fail them based on high absenteeism is no longer permitted.

To what extent are social promotions an issue? Several teachers asked their students if the youth knew anyone who had been held back a grade. All responded that they did not know anyone who had to repeat a grade. One teacher reported that at a particular Hartford public school, teachers are held “accountable on their annual performance evaluations for having failed any given students” and those who voiced any complaints about this were reassigned to another school the following year.

If the goal is to get students to graduate from high school, shouldn’t educators enable them to do so by any means necessary? Not quite, say some veteran teachers from Hartford schools. Whichever way unearned promotions occur — grade inflation or simple social promotion — some are saying that the cause of this is institutional racism.

Racism now is not the same as the racism of the early twentieth century. There are laws forbidding colleges and employers from rejecting applicants on the basis of race. Yet, we know it persists throughout society.

Today, institutionalized racism is allegedly found in policies that allow for Hartford students — mainly poor, mainly racial/ethnic minorities — to meander through a system and come out the other side having gained little knowledge and few skills. One veteran Hartford school teacher says that the low standards and watered down curriculum are responsible for

creating a class of ‘drones’ who are destined to function at the working class level. Most will be unable to attain success at anything higher than community college or trade schools. In short, we are teaching in a situation that is designed to prevent our minority students from succeeding in our culture.

The rebuttal to this usually takes the form of thinly veiled classist and racist attitudes, articulated as “well, someone has to do the manual labor,” which I hear as saying “they should be so lucky to have jobs and be included at all in our economy.” We do need people to do the dirty work, true, but we need people are are skilled and who have had a say in the matter. From the sound of it, students exiting city schools do not have an edge in this way, and certainly, those who do not enjoy the work they do tend to do a lousy job of it.

From 3:15 on, bell hooks captures some of what is being said about how certain students are being shortchanged. “Harlem” could easily be replaced by “Hartford” in this clip:

As she says, students might be given tools for survival, but there is nothing in the imagination for them beyond this. These low expectations are reflected in policies, attitudes, and behaviors.

An interpretation of these policies could be read as follows: “since you could not possibly wield the intelligence to meet the same standards as students elsewhere, we’ll lower the bar, and then lower it some more.”

It’s not just social promotion and inflated grades that are shortchanging city students.

Hartford’s new Senior Capstone project was handed down to the teachers in late February, more than halfway through the school year. Yet, the Connecticut State Department of Education declares that “Work on the Capstone Project may begin as early as 9th grade. Successful completion of a Capstone Project will earn the student one credit toward high school graduation.” From a learner’s perspective, having roughly four months to complete a project that these students’ suburban counterparts would have four years to complete puts them at a terrible disadvantage. While students could pull together something that encompasses “an in-depth project, reflective portfolio, community service and/or internship. As part of the experience, the student will demonstrate research, communication and technology skills including additional relevant 21st century skills,” their experiences would be richer had they the luxury of time to think through possible plans, implement them, and reflect. As we’re hearing, failure is impossible in Hartford, so youth will scramble (or do nothing) to complete their Capstone projects, get passed on through, but have learned very little about this project’s objectives. There is nothing that I could find about this requirement on the Hartford Public Schools website; after making the “choice” about what school to attend, it appears that parents and children alike have nothing to do.

Well, little to do except prepare their children for standardized tests. We’ve been hearing a lot about the extravagant CMT-related bonuses awarded to administrators — none of whom have any tangible impact on student performance. Superintendent Adamowski received approximately $16,000 and the almost-superintendent — Kishimoto – received just under $12,000. $2.77 million in bonuses were doled out in a time when many people aspire to make in a year so much as what some of these individuals were given as “merit pay.” Many have expressed their concerns about the amount of bonuses; for some, it is unethical to use students in order to gain extra money. I am hearing that some parents are considering having their children opt out of taking the CMTs as a form of protest against how out of control the standardized test situation has gotten.

Now, we’re learning from a member of the Board of Education that the high fives all around, in the form of test-related bonuses, may have been premature. In the March 1, 2011 edition of the Hartford Courant, BOE member Robert Cotto asserts that the test score improvements are not an accurate measure of improvement in student performance. As he writes in his opinion piece, an eight percent of students were excluded from the CMTs; however,

Hartford did not exclude a random 8 percent of its test takers, it excluded students who it predicted would fail the regular tests. In some schools, at some grade levels, proficiency rates on the standardized tests would have declined in math, reading or both had these students been included.

More and more, it sounds as if the sunny picture that has been painted of improvements in the Hartford school system is nothing more than spin.

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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