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Dolores Gonzalez, left, with her eighth grade daughter, Sanaya, in the P.S./M.S. 96 auditorium in East Harlem

Dolores Gonzalez, left, with her eighth grade daughter, Sanaya, in the P.S./M.S. 96 auditorium in East Harlem

Promotion fears persist as de Blasio misses chance to tamp down test anxiety

Dolores Gonzalez knows a little something about the city’s grade promotion policy.

One of her daughters repeated seventh grade two years ago because of low state test scores. Another daughter would have been held back in fourth grade for the same reason but continued to fifth grade because of a learning disability.

So last week, with Gonzalez’s third-grade daughter entering exam season for the first time, the family’s anxiety was palpable.

“She’s worried about being held back,” Gonzalez said of her daughter. “She says, ‘If I don’t pass, are you going to be upset?’ I try to tell her that whatever happens, I’m not going to be upset.”

Gonzalez lacked a piece of information that could have helped her console her daughters, not to mention herself: City and state officials are working to ensure that no student is held back because of low scores.

Gonzalez didn’t know about the possible changes to the city’s promotion policy, which for the past 10 years has hinged grade advancement primarily on state test scores, because Mayor Bill de Blasio has not announced any. Despite signaling for months that they planned changes to the Bloomberg-era policy, de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña left the promotion rules in place as students began taking this year’s tests last week—even after legislators signed a law barring districts from making test scores the main factor in determining whether students should move on to the next grade.

De Blasio’s hesitation to make changes to the policy has caused confusion for parents eager to know how much test scores will matter—if at all—when it comes to admission and promotion decisions. It has also flummoxed parent advocates who say that some kind of notice would have been an anxiety-reducing gesture at a time when emotions around testing are running high.

Maggie Moroff, of Advocates for Children, said she was “stunned” that the administration has remained mum on the subject.

“The city could have been more clear,” Moroff said. “There could have been an announcement about this.”

Instead, de Blasio spent last week touting his pre-kindergarten expansion plans and urging parents of four-year-olds to register for seats, the main thrust of his education initiatives during his four months in office. The city’s aggressive pre-K push, coupled with a busy legislative session in Albany and a high-profile battle with the charter school sector, have kept most Department of Education issues on the back burner, leaving families and educators in the lurch about some important questions.

Still, de Blasio continued to drop hints about a looming change to promotion policy: At a press conference last week, de Blasio said that parents concerned about testing would eventually be “assured” by the changes he’s making.

“Parents are going to feel different about this when they see us move away from high stakes testing in all of the areas that we can,” de Blasio said, adding that he preferred a “multiple measures” approach to assessing students and educators alike.

That change would be welcome for Gonzalez, who says she disagrees with the cut-and-dry reasoning for why her daughter was retained—while acknowledging that the extra year has been good for her academic progress.

At the end of a long week of testing, Gonzalez’s eighth-grade daughter Sanaya, who spent two years in seventh grade, was in a light mood last Friday, joking with her mother in her school’s auditorium about their weekend plans.

She described last week’s exams as “harder than what the teachers teach us,” and said the extra year has helped her in math, but not necessarily in English.

Now, she’s thinking about high school, though to get there she’ll not only have to pass the state tests and do well in her core subject classes, which factor into eighth-grade promotion decisions as well. The extra measures make promotion seem harder, she said, but also make it more fair for people who aren’t great test-takers like herself.

“A lot of us work hard the whole year and I just think they shouldn’t define what kids know just by one test,” she said.

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