The Philadelphia School District may have a growing academic scandal that needs to end. Several current and former teachers say they were pressured to pass students with failing grades, including some who can't read or write.

Schools chief Arlene Ackerman says the pressure didn't come from her, but may stem from previous administrations.

She issued a directive this week to teachers and principals that students should be given the grades they earn and not handed a free pass to the next grade level.

"I don't want any principal or teacher changing grades under any kinds of circumstances," Ackerman said in an interview.

That's the right message. Now it will be up to the teachers to act on her order.

To be sure, teachers must require students to meet the minimum standards before moving on to the next grade. Likewise, teachers shouldn't be punished if students fail - unless it can be demonstrated that the instruction isn't up to snuff.

It is a disservice to students to pass them along if they can't do grade-level work. If there is pressure from above, the problem compounds each year as students get passed on from one grade to the next.

That's why so many students graduate ill-prepared for college, let alone with basic reading or math skills needed for almost any job. Yet, ninth graders who can't read or do basic math or missed more than half the school year are getting promoted.

That is what several teachers at South Philadelphia High School allege nearly happened this year after Principal Alice Heller promised this year's freshman class that no one would have to repeat ninth grade. Heller claims there was no pressure on teachers and that teachers misunderstood her instruction to give students "multiple pathways to success."

For some teachers, that meant pass students by whatever means necessary.

Besides the principal, the teachers said there was pressure from other administrators at teacher-training sessions and meetings.

One math teacher alleges being asked to pass students who had never been seen in class. Eighty percent of the class is failing. Despite the alleged pressure, the teacher stated no intention of passing those who failed.

The teachers cite a troubling April 27 memo asking them to give students makeup work and credit for fulfilling promises such as showing up on time and wearing a required school uniform. That would earn them a final grade of 65, even if they had failed previous report periods.

That certainly sounds like pressure, or an effort to "dumb down" academic standards for an already failing school system with a 50 percent dropout rate and low expectations for too many students.

Heller wouldn't say if the administration pressured her to pass students, but says her plan stems from district initiatives.

Sadly, South Philadelphia High may not be alone. Ackerman agrees that teachers at other schools likely were under similar pressure and has ordered an investigation.

Ackerman has taken appropriate steps to halt these practices. Students and their teachers must be held to higher standards, even if that means failing marks.