2004-01-30 / Community

School Scope Slamming the Gates on Third Graders

By Norman Scott

School Scope
Slamming the Gates on Third Graders

There are so many issues popping up on the education agenda it is getting hard to keep up with them. It is like standing on a busy street corner watch ing cars slam into each other as your head keeps spinning around like Linda Blair's did in "The Exorcist."

The proposal to end social promotion (the practice of passing kids on to the next grade to keep them with their age group) by the BloomKlein administration at the DOE would retain third graders based on a their test scores. There would be no input from teachers or any educational professionals, people who might make decisions that would benefit the child. A similar policy for third graders having to take a test called the FCAT in Florida has been a fiasco.

Some say the policy makes sense. Why pass children to the next grade if they are having trouble reading? Leave them there until they can read like their peers. But I have this vision of 15 year olds eventually sitting at little 3rd grade desks and driving to school when in the 6th grade. (Maybe the Mayor will get lucky and they'll drop out before they get that old. Think of how much money can be saved!). Naturally I'm being facetious here since students are not left back more than twice and they will be socially promoted anyway if they continue to fail.

I also have a vision of scores of 3rd graders vomiting in the halls over the high stakes nature of this test. In Florida I bet they have barf bags lining the halls.

I loved Howard Schwach's explanation in last week's Wave as to the real reason for this plan. Schwach says that the 4th grade tests will be used to hold the DOE/Mayor accountable. By holding back the lowest performing readers in the 3rd grade the 4th grade test scores will soar, as will Bloom berg's success in very area by which we are being asked to judge him. The next mayoral election can become a referendum on the massive changes he made to the education system. If we hold back the expected 20% of the bottom scoring third graders, 4th grade scores automatically go up just in time for the next Mayoral election. DUH!

It all plays out pretty well for UFT president Randi Weingarten who enthusiastically endorsed Bloomberg's plan as she gears up for playing a suck-up role that will readmit her into the halls of power at the DOE from which BloomKlein banished her. (This readmission will allow her to bargain away pieces of the contract behind closed doors.

Well, she almost supports the plan. With reservations. Like, as long as the DOE provides the held-back children with resources. Ha! She didn't just fall off a turnip truck as she plays the "cover your ass" game. Everyone knows these resources will only be minimally allocated - never materializing as in the past. The kids will be held back in the same size classes with children a year younger and might get pulled out or pushed into some extra reading once a day. Why would a union leader who has complained vehemently that the BloomKlein changes have removed decision making from the hands of teachers endorse a plan that totally removes the promotion decision from-the hands of teachers? Should a teachers' union leader point out that retention policy is an educational decision and is best made by the professionals who are closest to the child? But what do you expect when you are trying to play "Let's make a deal"?

Some cynics think that the 20% of the kids left back will require more teachers, which will lead to more union dues paid into union coffers, with a resulting teacher shortage that will allow the UFT to call for higher salaries. In other words, is this just another job creation program for the union? I'm not convinced this is the reasoning behind Weingarten's support for the Mayor's plan and there may be more complex issues involved. Weingarten has her own union election to face this March. So let's give this one a Semi-DUH!

In spite of the BloomKlein Wein garten support for the testing policy in the face of a tremendous amount of research that shows children left back show little improvement, a number of educators have been rising to oppose the third grade gates program. The failure of the 4th grade gates program under Chancellor Macciarola in the 80's has often been sighted. (All I remember of that program is that most teachers avoided teaching what was known as "The Gates Class" like the plague.) Here are some excerpts from a letter being sent to the Mayor from teachers and parents.

"After reviewing the many studies of grade retention, the Nation al Acad emy of Sciences report concluded that: "Low performing students who have been retained in kindergarten or primary grades lose ground both academically and socially relative to similar students who have been promoted."

Several large scale studies of retention have found that these policies are counterproductive. A meta-analysis of 63 controlled studies found 54 that were negative, with only 9 positive. After controlling for student background and academic achievement, a longitudinal study of more than 12,000 students concluded that being held back before the 8th grade increased the likelihood of dropping out by the 12th grade by more than 200%. Furthermore, "students who were held back before the 8th grade were more than four times as likely as students who were not held back to not complete high school or receive a GED" six years later."

Why quibble with such things as research? There are elections coming.


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