Speaking to parents in Brooklyn Wednesday night, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña signaled another possible policy change—this time to Bloomberg-era promotion policies.
“This is all stuff we’re thinking about, so I don’t want to see tomorrow that this is absolute: Is there a way to rethink how we look at promotion?” she asked the parents, who were a mix of parent association leaders and parent coordinators from District 15, where she was once a principal and superintendent. “Does promotion have to be tied to a test?”
Changing the policy of allowing students to continue to the next grade level regardless of whether they passed state exams was a top priority of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s when he gained control of the school system in 2002. The use of test scores in student promotion decisions, teacher evaluations, and school grades prompted parents’ questions about test anxiety for Fariña.
Untying test scores from promotion decisions doesn’t necessarily mean reinstituting social promotion, which refers to promoting students based on their age. But Fariña’s response indicates one way she could make good on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s promise to reduce the city’s emphasis on standardized test scores.
The social promotion ban took effect for third grade in 2004 and was in place for grades three through eight by 2009. Some years, few students were affected by having to score at least a level 2—half of one percent of fifth graders in 2008, for example. (In 2012, the city backed down slightly, allowing students who had been held back multiple times to be promoted if they had shown certain gains.)
As social promotion was curtailed under Bloomberg, the city also put money into Saturday programs and intervention specialists at schools, Fariña noted on Wednesday. Anna Commitante, who became an executive director under new deputy chancellor Phil Weinberg last week, will be working to revive those intervention efforts and to improve Common Core-related professional development, she said.
And while she criticized how the tests have been used, the chancellor offered her full endorsement to the tougher exams themselves, just one day after the uproar over the new exams led state lawmakers to call for a delay in using them to evaluate teachers.
“Testing itself is not the issue. I just want to say clearly that I do think the Common Core is the right thing,” Fariña said. How the new standards are aligned with existing curriculums, though, is where “we’re trying to make sense of nonsense.”
Fariña made it clear that she did sympathize with many of the parents’ concerns about testing and student stress. She repeated the lines she used when testifying in Albany: when students urinate in class or throw up, it’s all gone too far.
But she cautioned the parents in District 15, many of whom have been at the forefront of the anti-testing push, that she wouldn’t encourage opting out of the state exams.
“Again, every parent needs to make their own decision. I don’t think necessarily opting out of the test is the greatest way to get the best outcome,” Fariña told them.
At the meeting, Fariña also praised the district’s parent associations, which often raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, for also “caring about your neighbors’ children.” She focused on how parents and principals in District 15 could use their expertise to help more needy Brooklyn schools through grant-writing and joint events, and encouraged school leaders to swap staff with schools in nearby Sunset Park.
A number of parents said they were happy to hear more specifics from Fariña about how she envisioned parents taking the lead in her old district. The middle ground on testing didn’t sit well with everyone, though.
“She isn’t presenting an alternative,” said Heather Abdel, vice president of P.S. 230’s parent association. “She’s not for testing, and she’s not for opting out.”