SOCIAL promotion in New York's public schools suf fered another well-de served blow on Monday.
Despite vocal resistance from some angry parents, the board that oversees New York City schools voted to extend its test-based promotion policy - under which students are required to demonstrate basic skills on standardized tests before they are promoted to the next grade level - to the eighth grade.
Ending social promotion is the centerpiece of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein's ambitious education-reform agenda. And, while the jury is still out, such test-based policies seem to hold promise for substantially improving student achievement.
In New York, test-based promotion policies are in force for students in the third, fifth, seventh and now eighth grades. Similar test-based promotion policies exist in other large school systems, including Chicago and the states of Florida and Texas. The goal of test-based policies is to ensure that a student is not simply passed along before he has the skills necessary to learn the more difficult material of the next grade level.
The thinking behind such policies is this: Learning is a cumulative process. If a student is moved to the next grade without possessing the necessary foundation of knowledge, he'll only fall further behind his peers. It might be better to hold back a child who is struggling so that he can develop the skills he needs.
Oddly, defenders of social promotion rarely contend that students in danger of being held back are in fact academically prepared for the next grade level. Instead, they argue that such children should not be punished because their schools failed to teach them.
But it's more accurate to think of holding kids back as a recognition of reality than as a punishment. Of course, we need to have a debate about how to improve schools so that fewer students fail to acquire basic skills by the end of an academic year. But in the meantime, a child's lacking the academic skills needed to succeed at the next grade level is an all-too-common occurrence and must be dealt with, no matter who's to blame.
The relevant question is: What do we do with students in that predicament?
Under social promotion, the default strategy has been to ignore the child's deficient skills, pass him along to the next grade level and just hope he catches up somehow.
Test-based promotion policies take the more responsible approach - by recognizing when a student needs more time to develop academically and holding him back until he stands a chance of succeeding at the higher level.
Although we still have a great deal to learn about these policies, some evidence suggests that ending social promotion has had a positive effect on students in the early grades.
With Jay Greene, my colleague at the Manhattan Institute, I recently studied Florida's test-based promotion policy, which requires students to pass a standardized reading exam before they can enter the fourth grade.
We found that low-performing students who were held back made improvements in reading greater than similar students who were socially promoted, and the gains for these students increased two years after the retention decision. More research is necessary to see if older students respond as positively to retention, but the encouraging Florida results suggest that expanding these policies is worth a try.
Of course, we could simply move students along year after year and give them a diploma after the 12th grade, regardless of their academic proficiency. But if we truly want to increase the number of qualified high-school graduates leaving New York's public-school system, then ending social promotion is a necessary reform for any grade level.