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California's big test: holding students back

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While pencil sharpeners whir and students shuffle from recess to writing, second-grade teacher Marlene McLemore assesses the future of schooling here in the nation's second-largest district - and sees more work.

More work identifying "problem" kids early. More work with parents. More summer school. The reason: The district plans next year to begin requiring students to prove proficiency in schoolwork before graduating to the next grade. By one estimate, that could mean as many as 150,000 students being held back in elementary and secondary schools alone.

"This is going to mean more family and parental support or interventions, from tutoring to summer school," says Ms. McLemore.

With a new buzzword and a fresh push from the White House, an intense debate on school accountability is moving into classrooms across the country in a sharpening dialogue over education.

"Social promotion" - the practice of promoting students to the next grade regardless of their academic progress - is the latest controversy in an enduring struggle to address the problem of failing students.

It is presenting teachers, parents, and administrators with a dilemma as old as the first report card: When students fail, is it better to have them repeat the school year or promote them to the next grade to keep them with their age group?

Introducing a five-point education program his administration will offer by spring, President Clinton told Americans in his State of the Union address that "all schools must end social promotion."

He followed with a budget request for triple the funds for summer school and after-school programs - currently budgeted at $200 million.

While many academics and educators laud the goals of the program, administrators around the country are trying to assess what it will mean for them - and caution against a one-size-fits-all approach to solving education problems.

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