Is New York City’s Decision to End Social Promotion Beginning to Work?

By 05/21/2010

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When Joel Klein became the chancellor of the New York City schools, one of his first actions, back in 2004, was to end social promotion in third grade.  With the latest NAEP reading results just in, we now have some longer term basis for assessing the effectiveness of that policy.

Interpreting broad trends in test score data is often more of an art than a science, of course, so one should be suitably cautious before drawing strong conclusions.  But there is good news contained in the latest report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) on how well Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Joel Klein are doing in New York City at teaching elementary and middle school students how to read. NAEP results are particularly interesting, since the tests are thought to be a pretty accurate barometer of what is happening within a city or state.

Not that one would realize there was a lot of good news for New Yorkers by reading the headlines in the New York Times today. The nation’s paper of record characterized NAEP results as “mixed,” despite the fact that 4th grade reading scores have climbed by 11 points since 2002, with 4 points of that gain appearing since NAEP’s last measurement in 2007.  Nationwide, there was only a 3 point gain in reading between ‘02 and ’09, and none at all since ’07. In big cities as a whole, the reading numbers are 8 points up since ‘02, with only 2 of those points coming since ’07.  So NYC’s 11 point gain since 2002, with 4 points of that gain coming in the past two years, gives little credence to those who criticized the city’s decision to end social promotion.

It’s the 8th grade results that the New York Times relies upon to draw a judgment of “mixed.” That characterization is used despite the fact that NYC’s 8th grade results improved by 3 points since 2007, a gain virtually indistinguishable from the 4 point gain made by the 4th graders.

Admittedly, the 3 point gain since 2007 only makes up a loss of that same amount in the preceding four years. But consider this: It takes 5 years for the effects of ending social promotion in 3rd grade to show up in 8th grade. That being the case, one would not expect any improvement from the policy to show up in the NAEP 8th grade data until 2009.

Of course, a 3 point gain on the NAEP falls short of statistical significance (just barely–a 4 point gain would have been statistically significant), so one should not draw extreme conclusions.  But one does worry about the New York Times’ use of the word “mixed.” When that word is applied to Wall Street, it ordinarily means some stocks are up, while others are down. In this case of the New York City reading stock, it is simply “up” since 2007, up by 4 points in 4th grade, and up by 3 points in 8th grade. Up is up, not mixed.

In the past, critic Diane Ravitch said New York City’s decision to end social promotion created a false impression that 4th graders were making gains when, in fact, the low performers were simply being held back. But inasmuch you can’t hold students back forever, it is hard to square that argument with continuing gain at the 4th grade level and, now, similar gains showing up in 8th grade just when one might expect them to, if the policy is working. It may be time to conclude, however cautiously, that Ravitch’s argument “ain’t necessarily so.”

In any case, we see no reason at all for the mayor being other than quite satisfied with the latest grades NAEP has given his city’s schools.

Comment on this article
  • Fred Smith says:

    Your sequence appears to be incorrect. 3rd graders held back in 2003-04, who repeated 3rd grade the following school year, would not have been 8th graders in 2009–assuming they were promoted in each intervening year. Therefore, they wouldn’t have been in NAEP’ 2009 test sample.

    The 2009 NAEP results do not speak to the efficacy of the promotion policy nor to the validity of Miss Ravitch’s argument.

  • melody says:

    On the other hand, considering the massive increase in per pupil funding that NYC has received and the bloated Bloomberg/Klein promises of massive achievement gains, one might look on the results as more of a fizzle.

  • Diane Ravitch says:

    I fail to see the logic of this blog post. The scores went up in fourth grade, for the first time since the Mayor’s reforms were launched in September 2003, and that’s good news at last. The gains posted in 02-03 predated the “reforms.” There were no gains in fourth grade reading in 2005 or 2007. But the gains in fourth grade had nothing to do with ending social promotion.

    Where we should really expect to see gains attributable to ending social promotion is in eighth grade, but the scores there were exactly the same in 2009 as they were in 2003. If you read the NAEP report, you will see that there have been “no significant gains” overall since 2003, nor for any group: not for low income students, not for students of any race or ethnic group, and no change in the percentage abover basic or proficient. In 2003, 38% of eighth grade students in NYC were below basic; in 2009, 38% of eighth grade students in NYC were below basic.

    So what is it about the eighth grade NAEP scores that makes you conclude that “ending social promotion” is working? No change from 2003-2009 doesn’t look like progress to me.

    We should surely celebrate the fourth grade gains. Maybe that’s the result of the Mayor increasing the education budget by 80%. Or maybe it’s other things. But it’s hard to see it as a victory for ending social promotion. That should have happened in the eighth grade. It didn’t.

    Diane Ravitch

  • Dee Alpert says:

    Examination of the tables at the end of the NAEP TUDA report shows that the NYCDOE gave test modifications and accommodations to a far, far larger percent of students than the national average. The differential is so very great that it casts serious doubt on the validity of the NYCDOE’s scores.

  • Education Next says:

    Paul responds to the comments above in his blog post “How well did ending social promotion work out in New York City?—Some further Thoughts”

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