Debate Over Retaining 3rd Graders Roils N.Y.C.

By Catherine Gewertz — June 16, 2004 6 min read
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New York City school leaders have endured months of withering criticism for a new policy that they projected could force 15,000 3rd graders to repeat the grade. Even when the test results that drive those decisions turned out better than anticipated, the heated opposition cooled not one degree.

Of the 80,000 3rd graders who took citywide reading and math tests in April, 11,700—or almost 15 percent—scored in the lowest of four levels on one or both tests, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said on June 3. Those children will not be promoted unless they take the test again in August and pass, or win appeals based on portfolio reviews of their work.

Leaders of the 1.1 million- student district hope that the appeals process and a special summer school program will winnow the number of 3rd graders held back to 10,000 or fewer. Last year, when promotion decisions were more discretionary and were based on multiple factors, including class work, only 4,800 3rd graders were held back.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s new promotion policy changed that approach.

The mayor’s policy, intended to ensure that pupils have the skills to succeed in 4th grade and beyond, has been under attack since he announced it in January. Critics question its academic wisdom and point to what they contend are political motivations behind it. Many dislike the way it was implemented—in the middle of the school year, and through the mayor’s shakeup of the city education panel to minimize dissent. (“Mayor’s Firm Hand Over N.Y.C. Schools Sparks New Debate,” March 24, 2004.)

Neither education leaders’ reassurances nor the good-news aspects of the test results—fewer 3rd graders scored in the lowest category on the tests overall than last year, and greater portions scored in the top two levels in mathematics and reading—have eased the controversy.

Up in Arms

Parents, two City Council members, and the city teachers’ union are seeking a judge’s order to have this year’s test results thrown out. A coalition of city PTAs has denounced the policy, and a local child-advocacy group, backed by scores of educators and scholars, continues to campaign against it. Some are calling for state legislation that would narrow the scope of the power over the school system that the legislature entrusted to Mayor Bloomberg in 2002.

Education leaders in New York City insist a real “gate” of accountability must be established past which students may not go if they lack the skills. They point to city data showing that 82 percent of the 3rd graders who scored at the lowest level on the tests in 1999, but were promoted anyway, were still performing at that level in 2003. Holding low-scoring students back while providing intensive help, they say, will ward off future failure.

Michele Cahill, Chancellor Klein’s senior policy adviser, said the policy is sound because it combines retention with intervention. The city is training teachers to spot and work with struggling 3rd graders, and will spend a projected $115 million on specially tailored summer help, intensive instruction for retained 3rd graders in the fall, additional teacher training, and smaller 3rd grade classes, Ms. Cahill said.

In a city where academically struggling children too often have been promoted, only to fail or drop out later, it’s not surprising that residents would doubt the school system’s ability to fulfill promises of better student performance, Ms. Cahill said.

“We’ve been criticized and judged on the way public school systems have acted, and we have to prove we will be different,” she said last week. “It is our moral and professional responsibility to deliver the amount and type of academic intervention we are proposing.”

Many activists would prefer to see resources used to enrich instruction in kindergarten through 3rd grade, rather than on interventions for children who have already stumbled.

“To me, this is about the failure of instruction in the early grades, and I don’t think you solve that failure by playing catch-up in the 3rd grade,” said Norm Fruchter, the director of the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University.

Because the school district widely uses an early- childhood literacy test, it has the data necessary to know which of its youngest pupils need help long before they reach 3rd grade, Mr. Fruchter said.

Jill Chaifetz, the executive director of the nonprofit Advocates for Children of New York Inc., said she was “aghast” that the policy was implemented despite New York’s own retention program in the early 1980s, which was widely viewed as unsuccessful, and many studies showing that holding students back doesn’t improve achievement. She is skeptical that the city has the resources to provide the teacher training and student help on the scale it has promised.

For some, the policy change oversimplifies a crucial decision. Sheldon Benardo, the principal of Public School 86, which enrolls 1,900 children in prekindergarten through 6th grade in the Bronx, said he supports clear expectations for promotion, and doesn’t oppose retention. But educators who know their students should be allowed to consider multiple factors in making such decisions, he said.

“One-size-fits-all, with no room for flexibility based on an individual child’s needs, progress, or circumstances, is at variance with what educators should be thinking,” Mr. Benardo said.

Political Motives?

Some who question Mr. Bloomberg’s policy have accused the mayor—who has staked much of his reputation on improving the schools—of trying to polish his image for re-election next year. They note that holding back the lowest-scoring 3rd graders might improve results on the statewide 4th grade test.

“I am just shocked that this is such a blatantly political use of 8-year-olds on the part of a mayor’s administration to stay in power,” said Peter Dimock, whose 3rd grade daughter attends a public school in Brooklyn. “My daughter was hostage to this, and it just pushed me over the edge.”

City education leaders dismiss that criticism, noting that such a tactic would be pointless, since one could easily calculate the effect on the 4th grade test of the retained 3rd graders’ absence.

One criticism of the new policy focuses on whether it’s appropriate to base promotion decisions on the tests. Even Harcourt Assessment Inc., and CTB/McGraw-Hill, the companies that make the tests, have cautioned against using test scores as the sole factor in such decisions.

Robert J. Tobias, who retired in 2001 as the city’s executive director of assessment and accountability, cautioned that the tests are most inaccurate as a reflection of student performance at the low- and high-scoring ends of the spectrum, because their margins of error increase there.

The appeals process, in theory, offers a sufficiently broad review on which to base promotion decisions, but there has been too little time to properly train teachers in that process, said Mr. Tobias, who is now the director of the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning at NYU’s school of education.

Given the margins of error on the tests, Mr. Tobias is concerned that the 3rd graders who scored above Level 1 will be promoted based on test results alone. A portfolio review ought to be used for students who fall just above the Level 1 cutoff, as well as for those below it, he said.

Delores M. Mei, who oversees the district’s assessment and accountability programs, said she was confident that pupils who scored at Level 2 on the tests would show similar levels of achievement in other forms of work, because the tests are “highly correlated” with other ways of judging performance.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2004 edition of Education Week as Debate Over Retaining 3rd Graders Roils N.Y.C.


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