A grandmother came to the tutoring center in which I work, needing help for her grandson. He is entering junior high school. The ask was incredible. She reported that her grandson reads at a first grade level and is unable to do simple math calculations. He has made Bs and Cs throughout his elementary school career. She was concerned that he will not be able to keep up in middle school.
Her question was simple. “How did he graduate from elementary school when he clearly could not do the work? I stood there, unable to answer her question, it was clear that there was not a good answer. It was awkward, embarrassing because there is no good explanation for the situation in which this young man finds himself.
The grandmother wanted someone that could in her words, “catch him up over the summer,” so her grandson could enter junior high school, ready to learn at the same level as his classmates. I made a few calls and found him a full time tutor. She was determined to make sure the child had every chance.
How did this young man end up in this situation? A lack of honesty is the reason. No one had the courage to tell him the truth back in first grade. He was not achieving at a level that justified passing him to second grade. He could not do the work but since he was never a discipline problem and worked hard, they made the false choice to pass him. He is lucky that his grandmother realized his situation and worked to change it. His new school will assume that he is ready for junior high school. Until he gets caught up, there is little hope that he will be successful in middle school. At best, the new tutor might be able to get him close to what he needs to know. The more likely scenario is that he will struggle in his new school because he does not have the academic background to be successful.
His new school will pass him too. This strategy makes the graduation rate look better. Schools that graduate large numbers of students are considered successful. State and local governments use this metric because it is easy to calculate. Accountability systems that use graduation rates motivate schools to pass students that should not passed. Schools use failure limits and other techniques to inflate graduation rates.
The real question is one of value. Are we focused on producing students that actually know the material? Are we challenging students to demonstrate their skills? Under the current evaluation tools, students can graduate without knowing the curriculum at even a minimal level. That must stop. We must create measures that actually measure learning.
We must be honest with students and parents. Students deserve the truth. It is their future on the line.