Complying with state law, city unties test scores from promotion rules

The city is planning to scrap a controversial policy that for the last 10 years has determined whether students move on to the next grade by their state test scores.

The new policy — which the Department of Education announced midway through the year’s testing period — would have principals, not test scores, decide whether students move on to the next grade. It represents a repudiation of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s flagship ban on “social promotion,” launched in his first term.

Officials said today that they anticipate that students would be held back under the new standards at the same rate as under the old rules. The bigger effect of the policy change, they said, would be a reduction of “test anxiety” in city schools, something that Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged during his campaign to make happen.

The department will also do away with a set of high-stakes tests that are administered at the end of summer school, in an attempt to ensure that struggling students get academic support, not additional test preparation, during the summer session. And officials said they would bar selective schools from using use state test scores as a main factor for admissions decisions starting next year.

Assuming that the Panel for Educational Policy, whose majority is appointed by de Blasio, approves the policies next month, the changes would go into effect for promotion decisions that are made this spring. That means scores on the state tests that students will complete at the end of this month likely will not be the “primary or major factor” in determining whether students move to the next grade.

While Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña has signaled for months that changes were coming, they did not announce a new policy before the tests began last week — even after state lawmakers barred the use of test scores to make promotion decisions. (New York City has been the only district to base promotion on scores.) The silence left parents and advocates anxious about how much this year’s test scores would count.

Today, parents said they were relieved to hear about the policy adjustment.

“I’m glad they’re finally opening their eyes and realizing that the state test is not the only way grade a kid,” said Dolores Gonzalez, the mother of three girls, one of which was held back two years ago because her state test scores weren’t high enough.

Under the current policy, a low score on the state English and math tests determine whether students are promoted to the next grade or retained for summer school. The summer school test, administered in August, determines if students get held back a grade. In recent years, about 10 percent of students, or 32,000, were retained, while around 8,000 students were required to repeat a grade, about the same rate as before Bloomberg introduced his promotion policy.

Under the new policy, test scores will be still allowed to count, but they can’t be the “primary or major factor,” in keeping with the new state law. Principals will now have to set their own school-level standards to determine whether students need to attend summer school, and schools will have to compile portfolios to show whether struggling students should ultimately be retained.

Officials say the new approach creates a fairer standard to evaluate student learning, reduces testing anxiety for families, and empowers teachers and principals by giving them more say in an important moment of a child’s academic life.

Emily Weiss, senior executive director for performance at the Department of Education, said the previous policy sent the wrong message about what was valued in the classroom.

“Our current promotion policy has been understood by many students and families to mean that student work throughout the year doesn’t matter as much as a single test at the end of the year,” Weiss said. “That is something that this policy is clearly intended to change.”

The announcement drew praise from a wide array of groups, including the teachers union and the advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence.

“It is time that New York City takes into account all the work a child does the rest of the year, in the classroom, where the real learning takes place,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. “Changing the promotion policy is just common sense.”

But the move wasn’t universally embraced. StudentsFirstNY, a group established to ensure that Bloomberg’s education policies continue after he left office, said the proposal “missed the point” and suggested that even more students should be held back. Executive Director Jenny Sedlis pointed to the 47 percent of students who scored a Level 1, or “not proficient,” on last year’s Common Core-aligned math and reading tests as a reason to keep the current promotion policy in place.

Officials pushed back against the suggestion that their proposed changes would lower standards. In a statement, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said, “This new way forward maintains accountability, but mitigates the unintended consequences of relying solely on a single test.”

Under the new policy, the city would also nix a $1.8  million testing contract with Questar Assessment, Inc. to create summer school exams that students would take as a last chance to be promoted. Officials said the high-stakes nature of the tests had turned the six-week summer school program into little more than an extended test preparation session.

The announcement does not change the fact that state test scores will factor into some teachers’ annual ratings.

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