Promotion Commotion ; New York City's Mayor Has a Goal: Stamping out 'Social Promotion.' but Can He Succeed Where So Many Others Have Failed?

Article excerpt

Paul is standing at the front of Ms. Lawrence's fourth-grade class. He looks small and bashful in jeans and a denim shirt, yet at the same time earnest and determined as he delivers a message to a visitor to his Bronx classroom at PS 86. "Parents are worried that their kids might be left behind," he tells her. "Especially the third-graders."

Such is the depth to which a climate of accountability through high-stakes testing has permeated the education landscape - and a small example of the anxiety it is provoking. Setting the tone nationwide is No Child Left Behind, the sweeping 2002 education reform act, with its strict annual testing requirements and its goal to elevate all students to grade level in reading and math by 2014.

But here in New York City, the debate over the best way to stamp out social promotion - the practice of graduating students with their peers, regardless of whether or not they are prepared academically - has taken on an urgency perhaps not currently matched anywhere else in the United States.

Beginning this year, a new policy will take effect in all of the city's public schools. Third-graders who cannot demonstrate basic competency on citywide math and English tests will not be promoted to the fourth grade.

For those who work in schools that function at a high level, this may not seem such a radical concept. In New York, however - the nation's largest school system with over 1 million students - firm enforcement of the new rule may mean requiring thousands of third- graders to repeat a year surrounded by younger students.

With all eyes watching to see if his campaign proves visionary or hopelessly quixotic, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is forging ahead to toughen promotion requirements.

Already, Mr. Bloomberg has expended more political capital than many would think wise. When the majority of his advisory Panel for Educational Policy opposed the move, Bloomberg fired the naysayers and replaced them with supporters - unleashing a howl of protests branding him a dictator.

But what some observers say may be even more perilous is the degree to which his adherence to the tough policy seems strikingly at odds with lessons learned from recent past experience.

A significant body of research indicates that holding students back increases their likelihood of becoming discouraged and dropping out of school.

New York itself tried - and failed - in the 1980s to stiffen promotion requirements.

And even as the debate rages here, a major report about to be released in Chicago is expected to send a mixed message, at best, about that city's experiment with stamping out social promotion.

Many New Yorkers on the front line of this question - principals, teachers, and parents who work every day beside the city's students - also remain deeply skeptical.

"With kids as young as third grade, you can't have a policy of one size fits all," says Sheldon Benardo, principal of PS 86, of using standardized test scores to quantify student achievement.

Then, there is the ever-troubling issue of test performance.

Ammon Ford, a senior at Long Island City High School in Queens, knows firsthand that not all students excel at taking tests. His AP scores don't reflect his grades, so how could a standardized exam define a third-grader's ability?

"Don't hold them back because they aren't good at taking tests," he says.

Yet, in defense of Bloomberg's plan, there is also a handful of current studies showing that retention - when infused with extras like individualized learning plans and one-on-one tutoring - may have some benefits.

In general, though, those benefits tend to appear only over a longer period - and are unlikely to produce the kinds of quick results favored by politicians.

It may be a matter of Bloomberg's general approach to education, which Ammon likens to the pragmatic way one might tackle a "business venture. …