Student Achievement

N.Y.C. to Retain Low-Scoring 5th Graders

By Catherine Gewertz — September 21, 2004 3 min read
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New York City school leaders, who only months ago withstood intense criticism for holding back 3rd graders who failed city tests, have announced that the program was so successful they plan to expand it to 5th grade.

Like the 3rd grade program, the plan would retain any 5th grader who scored at the lowest of four levels on the city reading or mathematics tests administered each spring. Those children could be promoted either by doing better on the tests after attending summer school, or through a review of their classwork that showed their skills were sufficient for promotion.

Michael R. Bloomberg

Announcing the plan on Sept. 9, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg pledged $20 million for programs to spot struggling 5th graders early and to provide help such as tutoring before and after school and on weekends. Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said leaders chose 5th grade for the expansion because students need strong skills for the important transition to middle school.

“We should not resign ourselves to leaving them behind,” Mr. Klein said in prepared remarks.

The mayor and the chancellor noted that 15,000 5th graders score at the lowest level on city tests each year, but that 12,000 on average are promoted to 6th grade anyway. The “summer success academy,” held for 3rd graders facing retention this past summer, shows that aggressive intervention can boost students’ skills enough to warrant promotion, they said.

Of the 10,000-plus 3rd graders who risked retention in June, more than 4,200 improved their test scores enough after the summer program to be promoted, officials said. More than 2,500 were promoted after their classwork was reviewed. Only 3,600 must now repeat the grade, only slightly more than in 2003, before the new policy went into effect.

Decision Questioned

Reaction to the mayor’s 3rd grade plan earlier this year prompted an outcry. Some activists contended that retaining pupils could harm their prospects, and the mayor drew criticism for firing two members of the district’s oversight panel to ensure its approval. The same panel, to which the mayor makes a majority of appointments, must approve the policy’s expansion to 5th grade. (“Debate Over Retaining 3rd Graders Roils N.Y.C.,” June 16, 2004.)

Jill S. Levy, the president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union that represents principals and other administrators in the 1.1 million-student district, questioned whether the 3rd graders who improved their test scores over the summer truly learned the skills necessary for 4th grade. Until that is proven, she said, the plan should not be expanded to 5th grade.

She is also concerned that 5th graders will now be added to the pool of children who face added stress because of possible retention. And she criticized the plan for what she views as its political motivation, a year before Mr. Bloomberg stands for re-election.

“The mayor has put a lot of emphasis on restructuring middle and high schools, and this is going to put a gate up [dictating] who can come into our 6th grade middle school programs, and maybe make them look better during this upcoming election time,” she said.

Eva Moskowitz, the chairwoman of the City Council’s education committee, said she believes the city would “get more bang for its buck” by investing its resources in sound preschool and kindergarten education.

Joel I. Klein

“They’ve gotten it backwards,” she said. “As a mother of three, I don’t want to wait until my child is 9 or 11 to correct their educational deficits.”

Kathryn S. Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, a coalition of New York business leaders, hopes the city won’t have to make a choice between 5th grade intervention and expanding early-childhood programs, since she views both as important.

She noted that the mayor hopes to spend a share of the money from a funding-equity lawsuit on preschool programs.

Ms. Wylde said her group backs expansion of the promotion plan to 5th grade because so many 3rd graders appeared to improve their skills by attending summer school.

“The business community has been frustrated for years that our city schools were graduating people who were functionally illiterate,” she said. “Holding kids back, by itself, isn’t a solution, but I think they are addressing that by committing resources to summer school and support programs.”

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein announced plans to offer extra help for struggling 5th graders in addition to retaining those scoring poorly.

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