En Español Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Times
Subject: Education Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Passing Eighth Grade Gets a Little Harder

The
Bloomberg administration won approval for a new eighth-grade promotion policy
last night at a meeting repeatedly interrupted by the chanting and heckling of
parents who contend that the policy amounts to blaming students for the
failings of the city’s middle schools.

The policy
requires next year’s eighth graders to pass classes in core subject areas and
to score at a basic level on standardized English and math exams to be
promoted. The Panel for Educational Policy, which oversees the city schools,
approved the policy by a vote of 11 to 1 in its meeting at Tweed Courthouse,
the Education Department’s headquarters. Eight of the 13 members on the panel —
there is one vacancy — are appointed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, and the
five borough presidents appoint one each.

From the
moment the meeting began, it was punctuated by parents chanting, "Postpone the
vote" and "No plan, no vote," a reference to what they said was the department’s
lack of a comprehensive plan for fixing the city’s middle schools.

After the
vote, the chants grew louder, culminating in shouts of "Shame! Shame!" that
were accompanied by wagging fingers. The meeting was adjourned, with other
items on the agenda pushed off to next month’s meeting. Parents continued their
protests outside the building while Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein met with
reporters to defend the policy.

"In the
end, passing kids through the system without making sure they’re ready for the
next grade level is not a formula for success," he said. "Our job is not to
move a kid out of middle school; our job is to move a kid from middle school to
high school, prepared for high school."

Mr. Klein
said he believed there was "widespread support throughout the city for the
policy."

But
parents and education advocates,** who held a news conference
protesting the measure on the steps of the courthouse before the meeting,
disagreed.

Ken Cohen,
the N.A.A.C.P. regional director for New
York City, called on the panel to postpone the vote,
based on what he said was widespread disapproval of the policy. "Today we are
here to see how this body reacts to the voice of the people," he said. "This is
not their government; it is our government. Let the people speak."

When the
mayor four years ago announced strict new promotion criteria for third graders
in an effort to end social promotion, in which children are passed along to the
next grade even when they are academically unprepared, he ushered in one of the
stormiest episodes of his mayoralty.

Parents
and politicians balked, and the policy was approved only after the mayor fired
two panel members who had opposed it; the Staten Island
borough president fired a third.

Subsequent
promotion policies for fifth and seventh graders generated far less opposition.
That was in large measure because the policies have resulted in fewer students
being held back than before, with some improving their test scores after summer
school programs, and others winning promotion through an appeals process.

But the
eighth-grade policy has once again hit a nerve.

It landed
in the middle of a raging debate about what is wrong with the city’s middle
schools, and how to fix them. The debate gained momentum this fall, when federal
test scores showed that city eighth graders had made no significant progress in
reading and math since Mr. Bloomberg took control of city schools in 2002.
State tests, though, have shown city students making gains over the same
period.

One of the
key criticisms of grade retention policies is that they demoralize students to
the point that they may be more likely to drop out. Some parents say this could
be a particularly acute problem for eighth graders who are told they cannot
advance to high school.

The
eighth-grade proposal could also affect more students; last year, officials
said, 17,974 eighth graders received the lowest possible scores on their
English or math exams or failed a core course, but only 1,300 were held back.

Patrick J.
Sullivan, the Manhattan
borough president’s appointee to the panel and the lone dissenter, said the
number of low-performing eighth graders raised questions about the
effectiveness of the mayor’s retention policies in the earlier grades.

"There’s
no reason to wait for kids to fail and then keep them in the same environment
for another useless year," he said.

But Edison
O. Jackson, a panel member who is the president of Medgar Evers College, called
the effort a "step in the right direction," saying that too many students
require an extra year of remediation before they can move on to college-level
coursework.

Zakiyah
Ansari, a Brooklyn parent who is part of the
Coalition for Educational Justice, a group that organized the news conference,
said the policy punished children for "things they really don’t have any
control over."

She added,
"I don’t think anybody really understands the need and the crisis that’s really
going on in middle schools."

** Including Make the Road New York