Troubling Social Promotion Policies in St. Louis Public Schools

State Auditor Tom Schweich released a report yesterday on St. Louis Public Schools. Two points worthy of quick note:

  • The district violated state law by regularly promoting students to the next grade level even if they can’t read. The P-D explains:

But what troubled Schweich the most is the district’s practice of moving children to the next grade level even though their reading skills are sub par. More than 2,000 students tested at the “below basic” level — the lowest performance category — in the 2011 and 2012 reading section of the Missouri Assessment Program. Yet just 158 and 128 students were held back those years, respectively. Holding back each child who is behind in reading, as mandated by state law, would be too costly, administrators told Schweich’s staff.

“I don’t know what the priorities are as far as finances go, but at least in our view students who can’t read should be the highest financial priority,” Schweich said in downtown St. Louis.

Rick Sullivan, president of the district’s state-imposed Special Administrative Board, said the retention issue was a tough problem to solve.

“The number of students who would be retained would be staggering,” he said. “But that’s the question people have asked for years and years.”

Social promotion might help the school’s finances in the short-run, but doesn’t help the kids – or the district – in the long-run. 

  • Schweich found the district did an inadequate job of detecting or deterring cheating on standardized tests. There’s good news here though. In 2012, I sponsored legislation to require the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to buy software to detect and deter cheating on standardized tests statewide. That bill did not pass, but after continued discussions with DESE, the department requested funds in this year’s budget to buy the software. Because it just passed in this year’s budget, the software wasn’t available for use during the testing periods covered by Auditor Schweich’s report. However, it should be available everywhere in the state for this year’s standardized tests.