PROVO — Three Provo schools this year will require students to pass end-of-the-year exams before advancing grade levels.

Dixon Middle School and Maeser and Canyon Crest elementary schools plan to start a "high stakes" part of a program that is designed to prevent unprepared students from leaving grades without mastering subjects.

Provo School District this week approved proposals to begin the hard-nosed policy in the three urban schools this fall when students return after the summer hiatus.

Using grants and money from the state, the trio of schools piloted Provo's "Standards and Benchmarks" last year — but didn't adhere to the rule of holding kids back for not proving proficiency in reading, writing and math.

The program, which voters last year refused to fund with a proposed $2.4 million leeway, targets "social promotion," the practice of promoting by age instead of specific standards established at each grade level.

Only a scant few of other Utah schools also ask students to past tests before earning promotion.

At the schools, students who don't score well on the tests are referred to a committee. The committee, to be made up of parents and teachers, will decide if the struggling children should be held back or referred to more tutoring programs.

At Maeser and Dixon, according to a guideline for the program written by administrators, students who don't score at least 75 percent on tests may be promoted by the committee if they've shown significant improvement.

Under the program, students having troubles in state-mandated subjects are offered one-on-one tutoring and extra help from teachers and aides.

Summer school also is available for students who need more time and help to meet the specific standards.

The initiative also includes a crackdown on truant students and transportation for after-school classes.

If students don't meet Provo's standards, tutoring is given until lessons are adequately learned, Harrington said.

By most accounts, the program works. Consider: Some 53 percent of Maeser students in 1997 scored below grade level on a literacy exam

At the end of this year, 82 percent scored at or above grade level on the test, Harrington said.

"We've seen dramatic effects for Maeser," she said.

All schools in the 13,000-student district didn't start the initiative because the effort requires extra money for additional teachers and tutors.

When the levy was turned down, money was not available to hire extra classroom help districtwide to provide assistance to struggling students. She doesn't think it would be fair to expect students to immediately perform at a high level without "a support system in place."

Judy Larson, a member of the Utah State Board of Education, commends Provo for writing a program that offers extra help to students who aren't meeting benchmarks.

"You can't just plop a standard without helping people reach it," Larson said. She added that a few panel members serve on a national task force researching social promotion.

So far, she said, the board hasn't taken a stand on whether high-stakes testing is the best way to determine if students are learning. "It is a hot topic and an interesting topic," she said. "There's half that say it works and half say it doesn't."

"I think it is wise to have high standards, but I'm not sure about high stakes (exams)," she said. "Somehow we have to set expectations."