New Term Helping Students Path to Success?

The label ‘at-risk’ is falling out of favor in the education field and being replaced with ‘at-promise’ to help lower stigmatizing students.

As of January 1, California has replaced ‘at-risk’ in all educational and penal codes with ‘at-promise,’ While supporters argue that this term is less negative, there is criticism that it is still vague and not specific enough to drive effective policy.

From Education Week:

Despite the wide usage of at-risk, the term has no consistent definition, said Child Trends, a research organization that focuses on vulnerable youth, in a 2006 paper exploring the term. That lack of consistency can be positive, in that it offers program providers flexibility in defining the term for themselves.

But the Child Trends brief also noted that the term at-risk often refers vaguely to poor life outcomes in general, rather that providing a sharp focus on just what risk a child or youth faces. And focusing on nebulous “risks” could also divert attention from a student’s strengths and assets, the research brief noted.

This change in terminology follows others including mental retardation (now intellectual disability) and limited English proficient (now emergent bilingual or multilingual student).

In Maryland, the Kirwan Commission’s 2019 Interim Report also refers to this change.

From the Report:

Previously referred to as students “at risk” of failing to succeed in school, the Commission is proposing to refer to these subgroups of students as “at-promise” students, meaning that they have the promise and potential to be successful in school if the education system is designed to meet their needs.

This is not simply a change in language. It is a change from the long-standing view in this country dating back to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that The education system proposed by the Commission is driven in large measure by the twin goals of elevating overall student performance to an international standard and eliminating opportunity and achievement gaps. The alternative – continuing to do what we have been doing – is indefensible. The system the Commission has  Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education 107 there was something wrong with the students who were performing poorly, not the education system itself. The Commission takes a very different view. After examining the education systems of countries in which all students, across the board, including students who typically perform poorly in our country, are performing much better than in the United States, the Commission concluded that the problem is not the students. The problem is the system, meaning the school system and the system of social, health, and income supports outside the school. Thus, to fully understand what the Commission is proposing, to vault those least well served by the current system to much higher levels of performance, the answer will not be found simply in this policy area describing a series of special initiatives designed exclusively for at-promise students. That approach to education reform has produced an education system built on different expectations for different groups of students. The system the Commission has designed insists on high expectations for all students and, in the totality of its recommendations, provides the supports that all students will need to reach those expectations. These recommendations are intended to consign the old sorting system, so long in place, to the dustbin and to replace it with a system that will hold everyone involved accountable for getting all students to achieve high standards and provide the resources needed to accomplish that goal.