In promotion ban rollback, some students to get another chance

Students who have been held back repeatedly will get a renewed shot at moving to the next grade under new regulations that the Department of Education has proposed.

When Mayor Bloomberg won control over the city schools in 2002, his first major initiative was to crack down on “social promotion,” or allowing students to move to the next grade regardless of whether they passed the year’s state tests. The ban first took effect in third grade in 2004 — enabled by Bloomberg’s purge of critics from the city school board — and extended to all tested grades in 2009.

The proposed regulations, announced today, would roll back that policy for a small and particularly challenging segment of the student population: those who are overage for their grade and have been held back multiple times.

Of the roughly 9,200 students who were held back last year, 1,200 fit into that category, according to the Department of Education.

Under the current promotion policy, principals aren’t allowed to advance students who failed state tests under any circumstance. The new regulations would ease that rule, Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky wrote in a letter to principals this week.

“Beginning this summer, you may recommend these students for promotion in August if they have shown gains on multiple measures of performance,” the letter says. That means principals can now assess whether students should advance based on performance-based tasks and their school’s internal periodic standardized testing.

Critics of the social promotion ban have said they have seen some students stuck in a grade, unable to advance because of the state tests. Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children, said today that those students often become discouraged and are unlikely to advance.

“We ended up seeing students held back repeatedly that weren’t really getting extra help,” she said.

Pressed on this issue in 2009, Bloomberg said he was “speechless,” adding, “It’s pretty hard to argue that [the ban] does not work.”

Polakow-Suransky said today that, for the most part, the city’s promotion policy had worked. He cited a RAND study that found low-performing students who were held back performed better on state tests than students who weren’t held to the higher standard.

“It’s a relatively small and targeted adjustment to a policy that’s working 99 percent of the time,” he said of the proposed change.

But the new standard wasn’t benefiting students who were being held back year after year, Polakow-Suransky said.

“The needs of these kids are more complex,” he added, noting that roughly a quarter of the 1,200 students had recently been homeless.

In addition to giving principals more flexibility to promote these students, the city will also be giving schools $1,500 per student for intervention services. In all, the additional funding would total $1.8 million.

Polakow-Suransky said that he expected roughly 450 students to be promoted this summer as a result of the new policy.