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Utah lawmaker pushing to end ‘social promotion’

SHARE Utah lawmaker pushing to end ‘social promotion’

Young children would be held back a year in school if they don't read on grade level under a bill that passed the House Education Standing Committee by one vote Friday.

HB62, sponsored by Rep. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights, aims to end "social promotion" of first- through third-graders who read below grade level. Exceptions would be made for children showing a year's worth of progress on tests, or who are learning to speak English or receive special education services.

"Thousands of children are slipping through the system . . . without learning the basic skill of reading," Morgan said. "We wouldn't take a child who doesn't know how to swim and throw him into the deep end of the pool."

The bill requires schools to notify parents of grade advancement standards and when their children are at risk for not meeting them. Those students could then be helped through tutoring, after-school programs or summer school, for example. Parents could also appeal retention decisions. Children reaching grade level over the summer can move on with their class.

The bill essentially would mandate Provo School District's policy statewide. Provo schools annually have held back 25 to 35 of 6,500 elementary students over the past four years, mostly in kindergarten through third grades, Morgan said. More than 1,000 students a year are identified as at risk for retention but receive help and advance with their peers.

But 25 Utah principals opposed to the bill. The Utah Board of Education supports working with parents and helping struggling students but believes required retention is unnecessary, as principals already can do it, said Lynne Greenwood, state elementary language arts specialist.

Statewide, 24 percent of students are reading below grade level, Greenwood reported.

But that doesn't mean those children can't successfully move up with their peers. Reed Spencer, who oversees curriculum and assessment in Ogden District, said retaining children, who learn at different rates and may not be exposed to books until kindergarten, is harmful.

"Evidence is so clear that students who are retained learn less than students who are promoted. So, the question here isn't retention. The question here is, are we providing the best circumstances possible for students to learn and grow. And we all have work to do there," Spencer said. "Mandating (retention) is nothing more or less than placing the sins of the parents on the heads of the children."

Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, took issue with the claim.

"I'd like to talk a minute about the sins of the public education system," Dougall said, indicating students struggling to pass the high school basic skills test should have received help long ago. "We have a culture of mediocrity in this state. . . . It hurts our students, it hurts our children and it's unacceptable in my mind."

Morgan says retention is harmful only "if implemented in the wrong way," without warning or help. "Otherwise, the possibility of retention can be extremely effective in helping students, parents and teachers focus their attention on student academic success."

The Utah Republican Hispanic Assembly said it supports the bill for those reasons.

Help for strugglers, however, would have to come from within current budgets. The bill contains no extra money.

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com