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2nd May

First Published in The New York Sun, May 2, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

Herman Badillo is too much of a gentleman to use his speech accepting the Manhattan Institute’s Alexander Hamilton Award last week to attack the Department of Education over the half-hearted implementation of Mr. Badillo’s pet program to end “social promotion” in our public schools. But the elder statesman still made his point clear, reminding all present that this pernicious practice still lives.

During the years bridging the administrations of Mayors Wagner and Bloomberg, Mr. Badillo’s opposition to the practice of passing students on from grade to grade regardless of their academic achievement has been consistent. Since that time, we have gone through dozens of institutional restructurings of our school system, some major, some minor, most irrelevant.

The place that needs to be fixed is the classroom itself, something that Mr. Badillo recognizes and grappled with head on during his tenure as chairman of the City University.

By my reckoning, there have been four enormous public policy achievements in our town during the period between the administrations of Messrs. Wagner and Bloomberg. The first was the joint effort of the public and private sectors to rescue the city from bankruptcy in the late 1970s. The second was the revitalization of the city’s subway system under the leadership of Richard Ravitch. The third was the conquest of crime by Mayor Giuliani and the current administration.

Finally there is the glorious renaissance of our City University. After nearly 30 years of an ill-conceived “open admissions” program that turned this great public institution into a pathetic diploma mill, the university has regained much of its reputation for academic excellence. When the restoration of standards was put in place by Mr. Badillo and the CUNY board more than a decade ago, critics charged it would diminish minority enrollment. But the opposite has happened - the great difference being that minority and other students today receive degrees that are again respected in the marketplace.

Today Mr. Badillo is looking for a fifth municipal miracle, a restoration of standards in the public school system that will ensure that Gotham’s students are prepared to take on the challenges of the 21st century. He was hopeful when the Bloomberg administration seemed to buy into his program to end social promotion. But his unhappiness with the implementation was telegraphed when he noted in his Hamilton Award acceptance speech that social promotion is “still in place and much remains to be done to insure that the elementary and secondary school systems adhere to one standard for all.”

The central problem is that the underlying thinking behind social promotion still pervades the halls of the Tweed Courthouse and infects the State Education Department in Albany. So fearful are the adults in charge that reporting failure reflects poorly on them, that they are unwilling to tell parents that by any reasonable measure their children are failing and in need of academic remediation. Before we can design programs to maximize the students that succeed, we must swallow bitter medicine and acknowledge the reality of our failures.

So the program to “end social promotion” in place here doesn’t cover all grades and is based on the results of the notoriously inflated New York State English Language Arts and Mathematics tests. To get promoted in the grades covered by the program (now grades three, five, seven, and eight), a student needs to achieve a score of “Level 2″ on the tests, an indicator of minimal competence, below grade level. Because the standards of the state tests are so low to begin with, hopping over this low bar is not much of a challenge.

Moreover, there are all sorts of appeals that permit pupils to move on anyway. These include subjective “portfolio assessments” of student work which are prone to manipulation. The pupil can attend summer school and pass a scaled down (and easier) version of the test and move on to the next grade. The fact that that a promotional decision for a child can be made based on the English test given before the school year is half over feeds into the perception of the unfairness of the process.

Is it any wonder that five years into the “end” of social promotion, the number of students held back has barely budged from where it was under the old Board of Education?

Perhaps the state tests, if aligned with the nationally recognized standard of the National Assessment of Education Progress, and administered at the end of the school year to better reflect the academic performance of the child, can do the job.

But let’s listen to the wisdom of Herman Badillo and do it right. Paying lip service to “ending social promotion,” doesn’t achieve his vision. Only the tough medicine of high standards for all will cure what ails our public schools.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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