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
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
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,"
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