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Stricter Standards in New York May Hold 15,000 in 3rd Grade
January 9, 2004 | By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN | New York Times
New York City plans to impose strict promotion requirements for third graders that education officials estimated could result in one in five children being forced to repeat the grade, four times as many as are left back now.
The plan is intended to make sure that even 8-year-olds are performing at an acceptable level before they move on to higher grades. It is another change undertaken by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in his effort to overhaul the city's public schools.
The city would rely on standardized reading and math tests that children would take for the first time in the third grade. Those who scored in Level 1, the lowest of four rankings, would automatically be held back starting in June, city officials said. The plan could affect about 15,000 of the current 74,000 third graders, officials said.
The plan was revealed by Mr. Bloomberg yesterday in his State of the City speech, and city education officials later provided further information.
The plan seeks to end a practice, often called social promotion, of advancing students with their age group regardless of their academic level. The city has tried to curtail the practice in the past, most recently in 1999 when the Board of Education, under pressure from Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, imposed a plan that sharply increased the number of students in summer school. That effort was eventually weakened as school officials allowed good attendance and behavior to be factors in promotion.
Currently, teachers decide whether to promote students based on grades, test scores and attendance, and principals approve those decisions. The new standards announced yesterday are focused on the third grade, which Mr. Bloomberg said is a critical year. Officials said it could be expanded to other grades later.
Technically, the mayor's plan must be approved by the Panel for Educational Policy, the successor to the Board of Education, which Mr. Bloomberg controls because he appoints a majority of its members.
Mr. Bloomberg, the first mayor since the 1870's to have direct control of the school system, said in his address: ''This year, for third graders, we're putting an end to the discredited practice of social promotion. We're not just saying it this time. This time, we're going to do it.''
Even under the new criteria, pupils who score below grade level on the standardized tests can still be promoted provided they are not in Level 1. Of last year's nearly 79,000 third graders, more than 27,000 failed the citywide reading test and more than 17,000 failed the math test but might still have been promoted.
Not all educators agree that holding students back is beneficial. Forcing students to repeat grades is enormously expensive, and some education experts say that being left back among younger students can actually hinder a student's performance over the long term. Researchers say that students who repeat a grade are much more likely to drop out of school and that those who repeat more than one grade are almost certain to drop out.
Nonetheless, many school districts and even some states, including Florida, have toughened their standards for promotion in recent years, holding back students in a practice that education experts call ''grade retention.''
A 1998 report by the National Research Council warned about the use of grade retention, stating: ''There is persuasive research evidence that grade retention typically has no beneficial academic or social effects on students. The past failures of grade retention need not be repeated. But they provide a cautionary lesson: making grade retention -- or the threat of retention -- an effective educational policy requires consistent and sustained effort.''
City education officials said they were committed to such consistent and sustained effort. ''This has to be a policy and program that leads to early intervention and consistent intervention,'' said Michele Cahill, senior counsel for educational policy to Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein.
''There is no purpose in promoting children who are not going to be able to do the next grade's work continuously,'' Ms. Cahill said. ''We are starting the interventions really early and then putting the gate at a place where we are arguing that there needs to be a point at which the system becomes accountable for achievement.''
Ms. Cahill said officials had studied the Gates program, an earlier effort to end social promotion that was directed at fourth and eighth graders. It was undertaken by Frank J. Macchiarola, the schools chancellor in the early 1980's. Ms. Cahill said the program met with early success but was discontinued before it could have a long-term effect.
But Ernest R. House, a University of Colorado professor, who studied the Gates program, said it was a failure. ''The promotional Gates program in New York in the 80's promised the same thing, with unfortunate consequences,'' he wrote by e-mail from Melbourne, Australia, where he is a visiting professor. ''Funny how governments keep doing the same things even when they fail.''
Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott said that unlike previous mayors, Mr. Bloomberg had the authority to end social promotion. ''Every mayor may have said this, but this mayor has the ability to do something about it,'' Mr. Walcott said. ''This mayor is not in it for political purposes. This mayor is in it as a true believer.''
Jerry Russo, Chancellor Klein's press secretary, said the new plan would include efforts to identify struggling pupils as early as kindergarten and first grade and provide them with intensive help.
Mr. Russo said Chancellor Klein would announce further details next week, including how much the plan would cost.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the city teachers' union, said that teachers had long supported ending social promotion and that her union would help implement the plan. She also said that the effort would prove expensive because it demands smaller classes and more individual instruction.
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