03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Leave Them Back!"

New York City politics is often the politics of the absurd - and that is on a good day. The Democratic Party Candidate for Mayor (former school board president William Thompson) and Republican candidate (Hizzoner Mayor Michael "Moneybags" Bloomberg) are now arguing over who was against social promotion in the schools first.


"No, me!"

"No, it really was me!"

They believe they have identified the problem with our school system (social promotion), the culprits (recalcitrant 11-year-olds who refuse to study), and the solution (LEAVE THEM BACK!). I wonder if we are hearing echoes of Nero who fiddled while Rome burned and Marie Antoinette who reportedly advised starving French peasants to eat cake if they didn't have bread.

I must be crazy, but you would think other issues would be more important in the mayoral campaign this year -- the economy is in a shambles and unemployment in the city hovers at about 10 percent. For black and Hispanic men it is considerably higher.

The reason for all of this attention to "social promotion" is a city paid for study of fifth graders by the RAND Corporation that purportedly demonstrates the success of Bloomberg's "Leave Them Back" program but actually reveals something quite different.

According to the New York Times (October 16, 2009, A22), "A long-awaited study analyzing the Bloomberg administration's student-promotion policy says that fifth graders who were held back did better in subsequent years, and that specialized instruction for struggling students showed moderate success." Currently, students in a number of grades who score at the lowest level in state English and math tests have to repeat the grade unless they can pass the exam after summer school.

The RAND study found the following:

1. "Students who were kept in the fifth grade for an additional year showed significant improvement in standardized tests over the next three years compared with low-performing students before the policy went into effect."

2. "The policy requires schools to give extra help to lagging students. The RAND study found some positive results from these interventions. Frequent attendance at special Saturday classes had no effect on English performance, but some benefits for math. The results were similar for summer school."

Bloomberg's schools chancellor, who never worked in a school before being appointed to his current position, claims the study provided "solid evidence that our students are far better off because we ended the disgraceful practice of social promotion."

But are they? And was social promotion ever the problem?

It seems that between 2 percent and 3 percent of fifth graders were held back in the first two years of the study and by the third year just 1 percent of the class was retained. This is approximately the same percentage of students that were held back before social promotion was outlawed. Last year only 188 fifth graders, 0.3 percent, were held back because so few scored at the lowest level on state tests.

I would like to offer three insights into what has taken place.

First, social promotion was never a big problem. Politicians, including both Thompson and Mayor Moneybags, created an unnecessary furor and stigmatized what turned out to be a tiny fraction of the student population in order to score points by showing which of them is tougher. Shame on both of them.

Second, the "solution" was not the threat to leave students back, but the investment in tutorial programs. Even the students with the most difficulties were able to pass the assessment tests when they had extra help. Investing in students and schools, not threats, was the answer all along.

Third, and this is the real kicker, Thompson and Moneybags are measuring the success of their "Leave Them Back" program using tests that have been discredited. It seems the same tests are used year after year and being in a remedial program may just mean you get to practice with the test over and over again before you actually have to take it for real.

Come to think of it, I like the slogan "LEAVE THEM BACK" but with a slight alteration. The people we need to leave back are Thompson and Mayor Moneybags.

More on the validity or invalidity of the New York State assessments in a future post.