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We Need an End to the End of Social Promotion

New York City schools are being pushed by Mayor Michael

Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein to take a dramatic step - to start

flunking third graders who don't pass a test. It's a policy all too similar to

the Promotional Gates program, tried two decades ago under Mayor Ed Koch and

Chancellor Frank Macchiarola but abandoned after 10 years because of compelling

evidence that it had little positive impact and raised an already dangerous

dropout rate.

Across the country there is a growing awareness that the number of students

dropping out of high school is much higher than school officials have been

reporting and that flunking out is devastating to a child's future. As the

dropout issue becomes more urgent, it is hard to believe that anyone would

willfully choose to implement an expensive policy that shows no evidence of

increasing academic achievement and significantly increases already high

dropout rates for minority and low-income students.

"Ending social promotion," as the policy is called in sound-bite form,

always seems to be popular at its initiation. The latest two rounds of this

policy in the city, the first in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the second

now, are directly related to efforts by educational leaders to show how tough

they are on academic standards during periods when the public schools are under

scrutiny. The public and many community leaders react positively to the idea

that no student should pass if he or she has not mastered the material in a

given grade.

The theory is that the threat of flunking will scare students into studying

more seriously and that those who do not will learn the material if they spend

another year on it - tough love. It is a theory that is simple, seductive and

wrong.

From a student's perspective, of course, the policy means being publicly

marked as a failure, being isolated from friends and peers, and, in many cases,

being subjected to a boring and angry year in a class that was not taught well

in the first place. In the worst cases, the student is repeating not for

academic deficiencies but because of a bad day on a single test, or the student

is an immigrant who knows the subject but is not yet fluent enough in English.

But the most compelling case against ending social promotion is that

nothing more strongly predicts the likelihood of students' dropping out of

school than their being overage in their class level. And higher dropouts are

related to lower income, less stable families, higher crime rates and a less

productive labor force, among other obvious costs.

The politics of testing and toughness have dominated educational policy for

two decades, posing as the only alternative to accepting very poor levels of

educational achievement. In fact, the money the city would need to implement

this latest attempt to end social promotion - it would take about $150 million

to re-teach the third grade to 15,000 students, the estimated number who fail

the third-grade test - could be much better spent on things that will actually

produce educational gains. High-quality preschool and small-sized early-grade

classes with experienced teachers would be good starting points. So would using

some of the money for a different form of testing - closely watching how

students are doing on acquiring needed skills and involving them immediately in

one-to-one tutoring from a professional educator if they began to fall behind.

Summer activities and educational programs as well as reading projects and

formal summer school - not as a punishment but as a support - should be

considered, too. Study spaces should be open after school and in the evenings.

It is easy to understand how frustrated city leaders are with the schools,

but our children are too precious and vulnerable to impose on them policies

that bring political gain while intensifying educational harm.

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