No one was taken aback when New York City schools Chancellor Carmen FariÃ±a announced this month that she’d no longer rely on high-stakes tests to determine whether students can move to the next grade. Mayor de Blasio, who appointed FariÃ±a, campaigned on reducing the burden of testing.
That didn’t stop accountability scolds from squawking over the loss of the Bloomberg-era initiative. “Promoting kids who aren’t prepared would be disastrous,” lamented the New York Post. Starting in 2004, the New York Department of Education instituted retention rules that required elementary and middle-grade students who scored poorly on state tests to attend summer school. Should they still fail to test well, they’d repeat the grade.
According to the policy’s proponents, the only alternative to high stakes testing is "social promotion," in which having a pulse is enough to qualify a student for the next grade.
However much hay the mayor’s critics attempt to make of the shift, in point of fact, the change didn’t originate with de Blasio. The state is responsible for the ban on purely test-based retention, and Bloomberg himself had diluted the retention policy in 2013 when arduous new Common Core-aligned tests made retention politically and practically unfeasible. In compliance with the state, de Blasio would give principals final say in promoting students using multiple measures, though critics worry this could allow unprepared students to glide through the grades.
“Grade retention is one of the best-studied interventions in education,” says Robert Schaeffer, an education researcher and board member at FairTest, which advocates for meaningful assessments. In general, the hundreds of studies on retention policies like Bloomberg’s show increased dropout rates with no corresponding achievement gains. “The consensus,” says Schaeffer: “It doesn’t work.”
High school dropouts are five times more likely to have been held back at some point than those who graduate. Vulnerable kids, like those with disabilities, suffer most. Black students are twice as likely to be retained as their white peers. This is to say nothing of well-documented impacts on motivation, self-esteem and mental health, or the way strict test-based accountability practices fuel the school-to-prison-pipeline.
But an alternative to retention has been quietly chalking up academic gains in New York schools for almost 20 years. As de Blasio and Farina steer away from standardized testing, they have at least one possible course to follow.
A Tried and (Less) Tested Alternative
Under the banner of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, in 1995 the state allowed a collection of high schools to eschew most standardized tests in favor of holistic performance assessments. In these schools, graduation requirements involve open-ended research questions, written or constructed projects and dissertation-style public presentation, all judged in part by outside educational authorities.
Mostly ignored during the Bloomberg years, the 28 Consortium schools boast graduation rates 10 points higher than the city average. The graduation rate for their English language learners (70%) is 30 points higher than that of the city, and its special needs students earn diplomas at twice the rate of their peers. The Consortium sends 85% of its graduates to competitive colleges and universities.
The key, says Ann Cook, a co-founder of the Consortium, is to “change the emphasis in schools from having kids prepare for tests to having kids become engaged in meaningful work.” Cook was the co-director of Urban Academy, a school founded on promoting inquiry and discussion. Final projects used to assess student learning might be a 10-page evaluation of the headscarf ban in France, or an essay that considers, “Is the real monster in Heart of Darkness Conrad himself?”
The Consortium’s approach jibes with current research in child development. Project-based assessments like these compel teachers to de-emphasize rote learning and instill cooperation and student reflection. “If you have classes where kids’ voices are really an important part of the teaching, you’ll get better results,” says Cook.
Of course there’s the inevitable question of demographics. “People make assumptions that given the consortium's outcomes, its schools have a selective population,” says Cook. Unlike some high-scoring high schools, though, the Consortium’s student body is virtually identical to the city’s, from racial makeup to special needs population to family income.
The primary difference lies in learning philosophies. As reliance on testing overtook the city during Bloomberg’s tenure, Cook saw her incoming ninth-graders change. “Students are less prepared for an inquiry-based approach than they were five years ago,” she says. “There’s so much more emphasis on testing.”
The city never allowed any elementary or middle-grade schools to experiment with alternatives in the same way the Consortium has. But their methods draw from a progressive pedagogy that can span the grades. “There should be alternatives and multiple pathways in the elementary schools,” says Cook. “There are ways, but there would need to be a commitment on the part of the school community.”
Bloomberg’s War on Social Promotion
So why have these successes gone unsung? Though Bloomberg’s test-based retention policies were pedagogically specious, they sounded urgent and sensible. “You’re appearing to do something to improve education for kids from low-income families,” says Schaeffer, “but what you’re doing is, according to all the research, harmful.”
In banishing “social promotion,” Bloomberg suggested a binary between thoughtless reward and accountability. But posing the issue that way, says Schaeffer, is like asking “What’s your choice, being executed by firing squad or execution?” That false choice obscured the performance-based methods in Consortium schools.
Bloomberg’s initial 2004 push for test-based retention gained public support, but academics and administrators were aghast. When the largely mayor-appointed Panel for Educational Policy opposed his plan, the mayor axed and replaced three dissenting panel members to ram his policy through.
“Mayoral control means mayoral control, thank you very much,” he explained. Over the next several years the practice expanded through grade eight, modeled largely on Chicago’s retention system. But within two weeks of Bloomberg’s putsch, Chicago began phasing out its policy, dismayed by a study that found "poor performance among those who do not meet the minimum test cutoffs and are retained."
A 2009 study found some New York fifth-graders posting higher scores after facing interventions. But not until eighth grade, as another Chicago study found, do retained students show a risk of dropping out. That research landed just months before Bloomberg expanded retention to eighth grade.
In the end, though, fewer students than expected actually faced retention. The state steadily lowered the bar for passing throughout Bloomberg’s tenure, creating an artificial test score rise that helped Bloomberg secure his third term, but also saved thousands from retention.
It’s clear that Bloomberg’s paternalistic retention push was more political than practical, but it deepened the prevailing accountability logic—an extension of the belief that rapping a kid on the knuckles for a wrong answer yields a correct one the next time. That reasoning appeals to politicos, so long as it’s applied to other people’s kids. State education commissioner John King, for instance, is regularly derided for pushing high-stakes Common Core testing policy while sending his own kids to a private school that rejects standardized exams.
When the state tied graduation to exit tests in 1999, private schools protested that standardized assessments would force them to narrow their curriculums and teach to the test (though they supported exams for public school students). It’s routine that mandates imposed on poorer kids of color are deemed inappropriate for kids at private academies like Dalton and Trinity.
The idea that an entire spectrum of learning can be meaningfully gleaned from one test is inherently dehumanizing. The policies that accountability hawks like Bloomberg promote as panaceas for poor and minority students actually diminish their opportunities to engage in creative inquiry.
The death of exam-based promotion strikes a blow against the notion of test data as the last word in education, upon which the market-based reform movement relies. But it also gives Mayor De Blasio and Chancellor FariÃ±a an opportunity to craft an assessment practice that enriches students rather than reducing them to test scores.
Let’s hope they look at what’s working.
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