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Social promotion’s effect in New York City still largely unknown

Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to expand a social promotion ban will likely be the first item on the school board’s agenda when they reconvene. But board members will have to vote on the proposal before the results of the only research on the effects of holding back failing students in the city have been released.

The results of a study that the city commissioned from the research institute the RAND Corporation in 2004 are scheduled to be released this fall, according to Department of Education spokesman Andy Jacob. But that will almost certainly come after the Panel for Educational Policy votes on the proposed expansion of Bloomberg’s new promotional standards to include fourth and sixth graders.

(The Panel for Educational Policy was dissolved after mayoral control expired June 30 but will reconvene now that the Senate has re-authorized the law.)
Preliminary results of the RAND study, which looks at the performance of third and fifth graders affected by the Mayor’s promotion policy over time and will include data from the 2008-2009 school year, were delivered to the Department of Education last year, Jacob said. The study was designed to follow students for five years, Jacob said, and so final results of the study will not be available until the research is completed.

The RAND Corporation did release a working paper in 2006 that surveyed promotion and retention policies around the United States and placed New York City’s practices in context.

Even without research findings on the end of social promotion in New York City, Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein insist that holding back failing schoolchildren benefits them unquestionably.

“It’s pretty hard to argue that [ending social promotion] does not work,” Bloomberg said today as he called for the policy to be expanded to include all tested grades. “Sending kids into the next grade unprepared is as mean and cruel a thing as you can do,” he said.

But the success of tougher promotion standards is still hotly debated among researchers. One issue skeptics raise is whether it makes sense to tout a policy that only holds back a small section of students who have failed state math and English exams.

Last year, more than 98 percent of third, fifth and seventh graders were promoted by scoring a Level 2 or higher on their state exams either during the school year or after summer school, or on appeal. The charts above and below show the number of third,fifth and seventh grade students who were promoted, either by scoring high enough on state exams during the school year or after summer school. Promotion data for 2009 has not yet been released.

Under the city’s promotion policies, students who score at least a Level 2 out of 4 on their math and English exams are promoted, even though students at that score do not yet meet state standards.

Bloomberg said that low bar for promotion doesn’t mean the policy doesn’t work.  Holding back still-failing Level 2 students is an eventual goal but one that is currently logistically difficult, he said.

“If we went immediately to Level 3, so many kids would be held back that we’d be overwhelmed,” he said.