Making the grade
Is new trend to pass all students really failing some?

by Jennifer Pritchett
Northern News Services

NNSL (Mar 17/97) - The decision by some educators not to fail young students puts them even further behind in the higher grades, says a school administrator in the Keewatin.

"It's not something that's done very successfully," said Chris Purse, supervisor of schools with the Keewatin Divisional Educational Council.

Still a fairly new practice in schools, there's a considerable amount of disagreement on its value.

Students who are forced to repeat grades fail 99 per cent of the time, said Education Minister Charles Dent, when the issue arose in the legislature recently. "Typically, they demonstrate no better performance."

Commonly called continuous progress, the trend is moving through many Canadian schools, enabling students to move on to the next grade without passing the previous one.

"It's become a more standard practice of promoting students from grade to grade instead of failing them and repeating everything," said Wilfred Brown, director of economic services with the Canadian Teacher's Federation.

"Students are not failed because it's considered too blunt an instrument. It's the loss of a whole year. It's also not beneficial to them socially."

Brown said the hope is to identify and correct learning difficulties instead of forcing students to repeat grades.

Purse said the practice varies from school to school, with some failing students and other schools passing them on to the next grade.

While schools in the Keewatin have leaned toward the practice, Purse admits it's not going too well in his region or in other areas in the NWT.

"It's certainly an area where we have some problems in this region and in other regions as well, but I can't speak for them," he said.

Purse attributes these problems in part to the high teacher turnover in Northern communities.

A detailed record of a student's progress has to be kept in order for it (continuous progress) to work, he said.

"You have to know the students really well and you need to bring in the parents to make decisions," he said.

He also maintains that teachers aren't equipped to deal with a class full of students of broad-ranging ability. "Teachers aren't trained in these strategies," he said.

So what ends up happening when students in the lower grades are put ahead, said Purse, is that they lack skills required in high school.

"It becomes a burden in the higher grades," he said. "There's no hard and fast rules -- students have to be looked at as individuals, but this practice can cause problems in the higher grades."

While the practice may be an option for students in the lower grades, high school students aren't put ahead to the next level if they can't perform.

In order to graduate from high school, students are required to pass courses in core areas, thus forfeiting the option to go ahead without passing the grade.