Last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein announced a new initiative to end "social promotion" in public school. Speaking at the New York Urban League's annual Dr. Martin Luther King symposium, the chancellor offered the following assessment of current practice in the school system:
"No one wants to hold students behind. So large numbers of students are promoted even though those students are not prepared for the next grade. The result is that many students are passed through the system from one grade to another without the necessary preparation and skills. These students typically fall further and further behind until they ultimately leave school unprepared."
That assessment makes a lot of common sense. Who could be in favor of pushing students ahead without the skills needed to succeed in the following grade?
The question that goes unstated by advocates of ending social promotion is whether social promotion is the cause of school failure or merely a symptom of a larger set of problems facing the schools. Experience in New York City and other large school systems suggest the latter. Previous attempts, here and elsewhere, to end social promotion have yielded marginal results at best and have served to divert attention and resources from more systemic approaches to school reform.
What is the school system's current policy on student promotion and retention, and exactly how pervasive is social promotion? Herman Badillo, the former chairman of CUNY, has been the city's strongest proponent of ending social promotion, a position he has promoted consistently since his days as Deputy Mayor in the Koch administration in the late 1970s. He frequently cites the city schools' 90 to 95 percent promotion rate and contrasts it with statistics showing that fewer than half the students have passed their reading or math tests. Yet, despite these statistics, it is also true that upon entry into the ninth grade in high school, some 25 percent of all students are over-age for their grade, suggesting that they have been held back at least once in their school career. These two observations are not inconsistent. The system's written policy calls for promotion and retention decisions to be made using multiple criteria, including test scores, class work and attendance. However, the unwritten policy of teachers and principals has been to limit retention of a particular student to perhaps once in elementary school and once in middle school.
So, it is not entirely true that New York City's educators have been unwilling to hold anyone back. What they have been unwilling to do is to place large numbers of 15-year-olds in the seventh grade or 11 year olds in the third grade. That reticence seems to have some logic.
What is it that the mayor and chancellor are proposing to do and how successful have similar efforts been in the past? The new initiative will focus on the end of the third grade. Students who do not score at least a level two on the third grade reading test and math test (there are four levels, and level 3 is considered passing) will not be promoted to the fourth grade. Students will be given another chance to take the tests at the end of the summer, and if they attain level two at that point, they will be promoted to grade four. If they do not, they will repeat third grade.
The administration is pledging that students in danger of failing to meet the promotional standard will be given extra help prior to the end of grade three. Summer school will be offered to both third graders who have scored below the promotional criteria as well as to second graders who are lagging behind. Class size in summer school will be limited to 15 students. Over the course of the third grade, low achieving students will "receive instruction in small groups two or three times a week either before or after school -- and sometimes on vacation days and on weekends."
The administration is budgeting $25 million to pay for these services, but the true cost may be much greater. High school principals are being warned that summer school programs for high school students may be cut back in order to divert resources to the grade three program.
Despite all of these efforts, some students will inevitably fail to meet the standard and will be retained in grade. The ultimate success of those students will be the yardstick by which this new policy is judged.
In 1981, the New York City School system instituted a policy very similar to the one being proposed by Klein and Bloomberg. Termed the "Promotional Gates Program," it required fourth and seventh graders to attain a certain score on their reading and math tests before they could be promoted to grades five or eight. Then, as now, students were offered a chance at summer school and an opportunity to retake their tests at the end of August, and earn their way into the next grade. Then, as now, resources were directed towards those students who were held back in the hope of getting them to the desired level of achievement.
I worked for the school system then, and was given the job of evaluating the outcomes of the Promotional Gates Program. Our team of researchers gathered data, tracked the test scores of students in the program, and then reported the results to the public. As we were employees of the system, a team of outside researchers headed by Dr. Ernest House was hired to look over our shoulders and comment on the accuracy of our reports. Based on the city's experience with ending social promotion, Dr. House ( in PDF format) has become a strong critic of the notion that doing so will be beneficial at raising student achievement.
It's not that the Promotional Gated Program was a complete failure. In fact, in its first year, we reported that the students who had been retained as a result of the policy were making some progress toward higher achievement. That progress was modest at best, and in time it became clear that these students were doing little better than students who had been promoted in earlier years despite having low test scores. At the end of the first full year of program implementation, some 5,000 students who had finished their second year in grade four or seven still failed to attain the standard needed for promotion and were therefore slated to spend a third year in the same grade. This struck many educators as absurd. Some of these students finally made it out of fourth or seventh grade, but some drifted into special education placement, where they may have belonged all along. The Gates program continued on through much of the 1980s, but it had never been popular with educators, and what little support it did have, eroded as the years passed.
The program was finally ended during the administration of Chancellor Fernandez when school system researchers conducted a follow-up study to find out what eventually happened to the original group of students who had been held back in grade in 1981. Sadly, the researchers found that these students eventually dropped out of high school in much greater numbers than a similar group of students who had been promoted "socially."
Proponents of ending social promotion argue that these evaluations were too limited because they focused only on the students who had been held back and did not consider the impact that the promotional standards had as a motivational tool for both students and teachers. This argument holds that the real success of promotional standards is found in the experience of students who ratcheted up their efforts and met the promotional standard without ever having been held back. It was true in New York City in the early 1980s that fewer students failed to meet the standards with each passing year, but there was and is no way to determine if that was an impact of the Promotional Gates or simply an outcome of a general rise in test scores that occurred in the city in those years. That general rise came crashing down when the city instituted a new test in later years, suggesting that something akin to "grade inflation" was behind the increase in achievement.
Observers of the public schools in Chicago have taken note of the potential motivational impact of student retention policy on overall student achievement. That city instituted an end to social promotion in 1997, and researchers have noted both good and bad news in terms of student outcomes. According to their findings, retained students are doing neither better nor worse than students who had previously been socially promoted. At the same time, the Chicago analysts have found that fewer and fewer students are failing to meet the promotional standards each year. Researchers have interviewed students in Chicago, who report that the threat of retention is a powerful motivator. On the other hand, some observers have argued that the rise in test scores and in the number of students meeting promotional standards in Chicago is another case of score inflation on a test series that has been in use for a number of years.
What is clear from both the Chicago case and the New York City Promotional Gates Program of the 1980s is that there is little reason to believe that the act of making a student repeat a grade is going to be beneficial to that student. In the decades following the implementation of Promotional Gates in New York City, the city school system became much more forthcoming about the fact that many schools in New York City were failing schools. In our own evaluation of the Gates program, we found that what mattered in large measure was not the retention policy, but the quality of the school itself.
The Klein administration argues that its attempt to end social promotion is bound up in a whole set of reforms designed to improve the city's many failing schools. If those larger reforms are successful, and all schools in the city have sufficient numbers of well trained teachers, are led by highly qualified principals and offer no excuses for student failure, then it is likely that few students will be affected by the latest end to social promotion. If those larger reforms fall short, however, it will likely make no difference if students are retained or socially promoted. A second or third year in grade in a badly run school is no cure.
Raymond Domanico is an education advisor to the Industrial Areas Foundation-Metro NY