Should Every Student Move Up to the Next Grade?

Chicago will vote on whether to automatically send students up the ladder, regardless of their performance during the coronavirus pandemic, while other districts encourage summer classes.

By Kate Taylor and Amelia Nierenberg

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Moving on up?

Many students have fallen behind this year because of remote learning and other pandemic-related disruptions, leaving districts to wrestle with the question of whether struggling students should automatically move up, or if it would be better for some of them to repeat a grade.

In Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district with some 340,000 students, the Board of Education will vote on Wednesday on a proposal that would promote all elementary and middle school students to the next grade, regardless of whether they have fallen behind. (It adopted the same policy last spring, after schools closed down.) High school students still have to pass the required courses to graduate, but the district has removed some other requirements.

Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, an education think tank, said, “There’s some reason to think it makes sense,” noting that holding students back or offering them below-grade-level work both make kids feel bad and generally aren’t very effective.

But she added that, along with promoting students who are behind, the district also needed to take steps to ensure that students could make up the learning they missed this year. “I want to know what’s going to happen to make sure those kids are successful long term,” Lake said.

(The board’s proposal says that “students who are identified as needing further academic support will be prioritized for possible interventions,” including summer school.)

Some districts are taking other approaches, and trying to prevent middle and high school students from failing courses.

In North Carolina, Guilford County Schools, where course failure rates soared during the coronavirus pandemic, is offering middle and high school students the chance to take a “fifth semester” during the summer to improve failing grades.

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