NEW York’s schools used to emulate the scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz.” They kept kids moving along the yellow brick road, advancing them from grade to grade as they got older, regardless of whether they learned along the way. At the end of their journey the schools handed students a diploma and hoped that, as with the Scarecrow, simply receiving this piece of paper would suddenly make them smart and capable.
Mayor Bloomberg and School Chancellor Joel Klein realize that success later in life depends on the skills students acquire, not whether schools throw a diploma at them. They have confronted this Scarecrow model head-on.
Despite heated political opposition, they started requiring third-grade students to pass a standardized reading test before being promoted to the fourth grade. Earlier this year they expanded the mandate to include promotion from the fifth grade as well. A new study from the Manhattan Institute provides strong evidence that these reforms will bear substantial fruit.
Passing underachieving students up the grade ladder simply because they get older, or “social promotion,” undermines schools’ incentive to ensure that students acquire necessary skills. With social promotion, an ill-prepared student simply becomes someone else’s problem next year.
But with a test students must pass for promotion to the next grade, school systems are motivated to improve instruction in order to avoid the embarrassment of having large numbers of students retained because they lack minimal skills.
In addition to undermining incentives, social promotion makes it much more difficult for struggling students to ever catch up. Retaining students who haven’t learned the material allows them to be grouped with other students who have similar academic skills and needs, improving the odds that they will receive the appropriate instruction and learn what they missed before. Moving students to the next grade before they have learned the material for the previous grade just lets them fall further and further behind their peers every year.
New evidence from a study of more than 99,000 low-performing students in Florida provides rigorous empirical backing for New York’s policy to end social promotion. As in New York, Florida’s third-grade students must pass a standardized test to be promoted to 4th grade.
In a new study from the Manhattan Institute, we examined the year-to-year progress of the first group of students subject to the mandate, as well as the progress of similarly low-performing third graders from the year earlier, before the mandatory-retention policy was in place. We found that students who were retained outperformed their counterparts who were socially promoted by the equivalent of about 4 percentile points in reading and 10 in math. Low-performing students who were held back caught up faster than those who moved on to the next grade.
The idea that students learn better when taught at the appropriate level and when their schools face pressure to produce results may seem like common sense to most people, but to the education establishment it is a major heresy. They are pushing back hard to avoid replacing a system where students move up simply because they get older with one where students move up as they acquire the appropriate skills. There is some danger they may succeed; a pileup of retained students may put pressure on school systems to improve, but it can also put pressure on politicians to weaken or abandon standards for promotion.
Bloomberg and Klein need to hold firm. Parents and journalists accustomed to automatic promotion to the next grade are going to be slow to abandon this Scarecrow model for a new one in which grade levels and diplomas are treated as indicators of skills rather than as conveyors of them. And the education establishment, seeking to avoid accountability for its failures, will fuel opposition by blasting the standards for promotion rather than admitting its own inability to get students to meet those standards.
It is time for the education establishment to click its heels and return home from the fantasies of Oz, making sure that students acquire the skills they need to be successful later in life.