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.