The city is poised to revamp how it decides whether a student should be promoted to the next grade, lowering the stakes of the state math and English tests following new pressure from state lawmakers.
Last year, 8,000 city students—or 2.5 percent of test-takers—were required to repeat a grade as a result of a promotion policy that relies primarily on state test results. The retained students were among 32,000 students who attended summer school last year, according to new data from the Department of Education.
But the rules will likely be different for the 425,000 elementary and middle school students taking this year’s state tests, which are being administered this week and later this month.
New schools chancellor Carmen Fariña has been indicating for months that the city has plans to amend the test-based promotion policy as a part of her push to de-emphasize standardized testing. A push among state lawmakers with similar goals led to a new provision, enacted this week, that prohibits districts from using test scores as a “major factor” in its grade promotion decisions. That has been seen as specifically targeting New York City, which debuted a test-based promotion policy for third graders in 2004 and has applied it to third through eighth grades since.
The department has not provided any information about what a new policy could look like, though in February Fariña said that changes could be expected any day.
The city has a few options, one of which Mayor Bill de Blasio mentioned today in comments about the Bloomberg administration’s reliance on testing.
“We’re going to be using multiple measures in every way we can to make evaluations, to make decisions,” said de Blasio, speaking at a Queens press conference about adding prekindergarten seats.
Other measures include portfolios of student work, grades in core classes, and attendance, all of which are considered alternatives to address concerns that the state tests aren’t a complete reflection of a student’s academic ability.
P.S. 3 Principal Lisa Siegman said that, on a personal level, she would like to have more say in deciding which of her students should be promoted, another change that could be on the table. But Siegman was quick to add that coming up with a systemwide policy is in order to make sure that promotion standards are relatively consistent from one school to the next.
“Who’s to say that my multiple criteria judgments are going to be the same as someone who’s 20 blocks away, let alone another borough away,” said Siegman.
A department spokeswoman declined to offer details of the plan when asked about it this week, instead issuing a blanket statement about concerns over testing.
“We will continue to listen to any concerns that arise around State tests and consider them as we move forward,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.
Under the current policy, preliminary testing data released in June is used to estimate how many students should be retained and to recommend them for a six-week summer school session. That calculation was typically an overestimation, meaning that thousands of students who didn’t actually have to attend summer school have anyway. (Officials have said that they believe the extra classroom time could only benefit struggling students.)
At the end of summer school, most students advance to the next grade after an additional evaluation, which includes a portfolio assessment and another test developed by the city.
The city’s current test-based standard replaced a “social promotion” system in which the promotion decisions were not based on a uniform measure. Bloomberg administration officials said the old policy lowered standards and contributed to the high number of students who were ill-prepared for high school. (As a deputy chancellor in the Bloomberg administration, Fariña promoted the changes, which also standardized promotion policy across the city’s 32 school districts.)
“They promoted everyone, regardless of whether they learned the curriculum,” said Eric Nadelstern, who served as deputy chancellor for school support and instruction under Bloomberg, of the social promotion system.
The city has made some recent adjustments to the current policy. Last year, when the new Common Core tests produced lower scores, the city did not attempt to retain all of the students who fell under the test-based promotion policy’s cutoff. And after new data suggested that the policy was not helping students who had been held back multiple times, regulations introduced last year allowed students who are overage and have been held back multiple times to proceed to the next grade even if they didn’t meet the score cutoff.
If test scores will no longer be the primary factor, some parents say they still want more information about how their children will be evaluated. The city already issued “promotion in doubt” letters in February to families of students whose teachers believed they might not meet the city’s promotion criteria this year.
“What I really want to know is how will promotion decisions be made now,” said Jessica Blatt, the parent of a third grader.