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

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.

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