August 19, 2001 11:00 pm

It might be an idea whose time has come. The St. Paul, Minn., School District is becoming the first in the nation to advance students incrementally. The move is in response to the problems created by social advancement, which involves advancing students to the next grade regardless of the quality of their work or their mastery of the fundamentals. Social advancement can compound the difficulties of students struggling to keep up with their peers. The students move on to new academic challenges without having formed a solid foundation.

Heres how the half-grades concept will work in the St. Paul district. Nearly 500 students in the urban and suburban district this fall will start in half grades instead of advancing with their classmates a full grade. In other words, a child who struggled in the third grade would go to grade 3.5, instead of advancing to the fourth grade.

The program will allow the struggling students to focus on basics theyve missed such as reading, writing and math. Those who do well in mastering their subjects in their half grade will be reunited with their classmates in the fall of 2002.

questions must be asked about the program. Will the half-grade approach embarrass students held back, and will these students be ostracized by their peers? Will more teachers be needed to implement the program? How much will it cost? Will benefits to students outweigh the costs to taxpayers?

Currently, schools put too much emphasis on standardized testing to measure student progress and teacher performance, which undermines incremental progress. Many of these tests are poorly written, and students take them lightly since their graduation or passage to the next grade isnt on the line. More accurate ways of measuring student and teacher performance need to be designed, ones that measure not mastery of obscure facts but how well the building blocks of education are being put together for students.

School administrators in Oregon should keep a close eye on the Minnesota program to see how it works. If it is a success, perhaps Oregon could implement a similar program so students can learn incrementally, one step at a time, and not fall into the traps of social advancement.


The Observer from time to time publishes its Where to Write box, containing the phone numbers and addresses of elected officials. Readers often ask us when it will be published, so they can save it for future reference.

Today, were publishing Where to Write, featuring the names, addresses, phone numbers, fax numbers and e-mail addresses of federal, state and local officials. Maybe people will want to express their views to the governor or other elected officials about the half-grade issue (discussed above). Clip out Where to Write and keep it handy as a tool you can use.