study says...

City promotion policy has short-term benefits, study says

Number of students retained or needing academic intervention services, 2004-2008
Number of students retained or needing academic intervention services, 2004-2008

A highly anticipated independent research study on the effects of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s promotion and retention policies says that fifth graders benefit from the promotion practices — at least through their seventh grade year.

The policy requires that students in several grades reach a certain level on state math and reading tests before going on to the next grade. Citing years of research, critics have charged that the new rules wouldn’t help students and could possibly hurt them or cause them to drop out of school later.

But researchers at the RAND Corporation, which conducted the study, said that hasn’t happened.

The lowest-performing students who took tests under the new promotion policy did better later than earlier students who weren’t held to the new standards. The study compared the first three classes of fifth-graders held to the promotion standards to the previous class of students who were not affected by the new policy.

The report said students benefit because their schools identify them as at-risk earlier and give them extra help.

Students surveyed for the report also said being held back didn’t make them less confident about school.

Schools chancellor Joel Klein hailed the study, saying that it validated the city’s promotion and retention standards and refuted critics of the policy.

“We now have solid evidence that our students are far better off because we ended the disgraceful practice of social promotion,” he said in a statement. “Our promotion policy has helped to raise standards in schools without causing the negative social or emotional effects that some critics feared.”

The report does not look at longer-term questions such as whether a harsher retention policy could cause students to drop out later. Researchers said the city’s policy is too new to answer those questions.

The authors did note, though, that their findings “holds promise” for long-term benefits. “In order for there to be long-term benefits, you have to have short-term benefits,” Jennifer Sloan McCombs, one of the editors of the study, said in an interview. “We found that there were short-term benefits.”

The authors recommended further research following students subject to the policy over longer periods of time.

The study also confirmed that fewer students were actually held back once the new policies were in place. At first, the proportion of students retained stayed about the same, at 2 percent. By 2007, that number fell by half.

Norm Fruchter, a senior policy adviser at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, said that the small change in numbers of students held back raised questions of the standards’ relevancy, suggesting that the policy change served mostly political purposes.

“It seems like social promotion was attacked as a scapegoat, but if the whole policy didn’t change much, then either social promotion wasn’t going on before, or this didn’t do anything,” he said.

About 1,200 fifth graders, or 2 percent of the class, were retained in 2004-05, the year before the new promotion standards were put in place for that grade. The following two years, between 2 and 3 percent of each class was held back. In the third year of the policy, just 621 students, or 1 percent of the class, were retained.

Others point out that rising state test scores could be a reason for the declining number of students being held back.

Editors of the report said that they adjusted their findings to account for the general upward trend of student test scores statewide as they determined how much better students performed under the new standards. But they acknowledged that the dramatic upswing in scores presented a challenge in isolating the effects of the promotion and retention policy.

In addition to looking at student data, researchers also studied the programs offered to held-back students over the summer, visiting programs and interviewing students and staff. They concluded that the programs played a small but significant role in raising student test scores.

They also sent surveys to school staff and students, asking them about being retained.

The Department of Education commissioned the RAND Corporation to study the performance of the fifth graders over time. The study also looked at data from two classes of third graders, which it reported separately. Researchers said they also found benefits to third graders, though the data they analyzed was not nearly as thorough for that grade.

The standards require students to score at least a Level 2 on state exams in order to be promoted to the next grade. The city introduced the policy for third-graders in 2003-04 and has since expanded the policy to fifth, seventh and eighth-graders.

In August, Bloomberg proposed expanding the policy to all tested grades, but critics have said that the citywide school board should wait until the results of the RAND research were released to vote. At last week’s meeting of the board, Klein said that the board would have the opportunity to review the results before they vote on the extension of the standards.

Both the 14-page summary of the report and the full 300-plus-page monograph are available here. There’s a lot of data here, so please dig in and tell us what you notice.

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.

getting to graduation

New York City graduation rate hits record high of 74.3 percent in 2017

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the 2017 graduation rate at South Bronx Preparatory school.

New York City’s graduation rate rose to 74.3 percent in 2017, a slight increase over the previous year and a new high for the city.

The 1.2 percentage point increase over the previous year continues an upward climb for the city, where the overall graduation rate has grown by nearly 28 points since 2005. The state graduation rate also hit a new high — 82.1 percent — just under the U.S. rate of 84.1 percent.

The city’s dropout rate fell to 7.8 percent, a small decline from the previous year and the lowest rate on record, according to the city.

“New York City is showing that when we invest in our students, they rise to the challenge and do better and better,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday.

More graduates were also deemed ready for college-level work. Last year, 64 percent of graduates earned test scores that met the City University of New York’s “college-ready” benchmark — up more than 13 percentage points from the previous year. 

However, the gains came after CUNY eased its readiness requirements; without that change, city officials said the increase would be significantly smaller. But even with the less rigorous requirements, more than a third of city students who earned high-school diplomas would be required to take remedial classes at CUNY.

Phil Weinberg, the education department’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, noted that CUNY’s college-readiness requirements are more demanding than New York’s graduation standards — which are among the toughest in the country.

We will work toward making sure none of our students need remediation when they get to college,” he told reporters. “But that’s a long game for us and we continue to move in that direction.”

The rising graduation rates follow a series of changes the state has made in recent years to help more students earn diplomas.

The graduation-requirement changes include allowing students with disabilities to earn a diploma by passing fewer exit exams and letting more students appeal a failed score. In addition, students can now substitute a work-readiness credential for one of the five Regents exams they must pass in order to graduate — adding to a number of other alternative tests the state has made available in the past few years.

About 9,900 students used one of those alternative-test or credential options in 2017, while 315 students with disabilities took advantage of the new option for them, according to state officials. They could not say how many students successfully appealed a low test score; but in 2016, about 1,300 New York City students did so.

The news was mixed for schools in de Blasio’s high-profile “Renewal” improvement program for low-performing schools. Among the 28 high schools that have received new social services and academic support through the program, the graduation rate increased to nearly 66 percent — almost a 6 percentage point bump over 2016. Their dropout rate also fell by about 2 points, to 16.4 percent, though that remains more than twice as high as the citywide rate.

However, more than half of the high schools in that $568 million program — 19 out of 28 — missed the graduation goals the city set for them, according to a New York Times analysis based on preliminary figures.

Graduation rates for students who are still learning English ticked up slightly to 32.5 percent, following a sharp decline the previous year that the state education commissioner called “disturbing.” City officials argue that students who improved enough to shed the designation of “English language learner” in the years before they graduated should also be counted; among that larger group, the graduation rate was 53 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, the graduation-rate gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers narrowed a smidgen, but it remains wide. Last year, the graduation rate was about 83 percent for white students, 70 percent for black students, and 68 percent for Hispanic students. That represented a closing of the gap between white and black students by 0.4 percentage points, and 0.1 points between whites and Hispanic.

Asian students had the highest rate — 87.5 percent — a nearly 2 point increase from the previous year that widened their lead over other racial groups.

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.