Holding Back, Teaching To Test Won’t Solve Problems Editorial
Late last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with Schools Chancellor Joel Klein at his side, announced that following the success attendant upon holding students back in third and fifth grades, the New York City school system would henceforth follow a similar policy for students in seventh grade. “We were going to educate students before we promoted them, instead of the other way around,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said of the policy for third and fifth grade students and the forthcoming rule for students in seventh grade.
We commend the mayor’s and Klein’s efforts to revamp the school system, in particular the practice of social promotion. Social promotion is one of the reasons why a good proportion of our city’s student body graduates from high school unable to read their diplomas and do simple arithmetic.
Notice, however, that we said “one” of the reasons. The practice of passing students from one grade to the next whether they are adequately prepared to do higher-level work or not is a symptom, not the whole problem. Eliminating social promotion will work for some students, but by no means all. Motivation is a door that’s locked from the inside. Some flee the stick, while others are drawn to the carrot.
No two people learn in exactly the same way; unfortunately, in any school system, especially one as large as New York City, which numbers more than a million students on its attendance rolls, a standard must be established to determine whether students are ready to move on to the next grade. Like third- and fifth-grade students, seventh-graders will now have to meet that standard—citywide standardized reading and math tests they must pass in order to be promoted. Those who fail either or both of the exams can go to summer school and retake them. If they still don't pass, there's also an appeals process that may allow them to move on to the next grade.
The remediation measures are all well and good. However, using the results of standardized tests to determine a student’s readiness to be promoted means that students in third, fifth and seventh grade will probably spend most of their respective academic years being “taught to the test” in order to pass and be promoted. Other subject areas, some of which are more practical, more pertinent or more interesting, may be neglected because there is no time for them.
The practice of holding back students who fail tests can backfire. Ending social promotion, according to some research, actually depresses student achievement and motivation, with many students subsequently engaging in behavior that disrupts the schools and the communities surrounding them. And when large numbers of a school’s students are overage for their grade, the overall school climate begins to reflect lowered expectations for learning. Students stop trying and scores drop still further.
Standardized tests have their place. Taking tests is, after all, what school is about. School is a microcosm for life. In the working world, whether one enters it after going through higher education or straight after high school graduation, one is tested and passes or fails in a thousand different ways every day. Failures—and yes, successes—carry consequences, some more severe than others. Testing children is excellent preparation for life. However, it can be carried to extremes and then becomes meaningless.
As for ending social promotion, if all schools in New York City have enough well trained teachers and qualified principals and offer no excuses for student failure, then few students are likely to be affected by an end to social promotion, whatever their grade in school. If those larger reforms fall short, however, it will likely make no difference if students are retained or socially promoted.
The Chicago school system abolished social promotion in the late 1990s. Results of the Chicago experiment and a similar New York City program of the 1980s indicate that there is little reason to believe that making a student repeat a grade is truly beneficial to that student. What seems to matter more is the quality of the school itself. Standardized test scores and the number of students promoted or held back say more about the school than the students. How we respond to what the numbers tell us will determine the future of the schools and the students who attend them.