Students of Summer

Eight-year-olds are old enough to know what summer school means, and what being held back means, and what a life-altering hurdle like the city’s English Language Arts test can mean. They can notice the news (some can read well enough to get through a paper), and they knew what was going on when Mike Bloomberg announced that anyone who flunked would have to repeat the third grade. Talia, an 8-year-old at P.S. 8 in Downtown Brooklyn, had been nervous ever since she learned the test carried that kind of meaning.

Talia knew she wasn’t the world’s best reader, but she liked to read. Her teacher, Tanya Foret, had been tutoring her daily after school the entire fall. Talia had a habit of reading a sentence and going back and reading it again, which would slow her down. But she had worked on that and was proud of herself. “I think there are a lot of self-esteem issues for her,” Foret says. “And when you have a side-by-side test situation like this and she sees other children finish, that’s a problem for her.”

The ELA test is 65 minutes long.

Students read a selection of stories, each about a page and a half, and answer several questions about them, filling out the answers on bubble sheets. The highest score is a 4, the lowest a 1. You might think that any kid who scores a 1 deserves a little wake-up call, but Foret says Talia is as engaged at school as any other kid, and her parents are on top of her situation. As soon as the mayor’s anti-social-promotion policy was enacted for third-graders, Talia’s mother came to the school, arguing that her daughter was simply too young to be grilled like this. An “intervention specialist” at the school had fixed in on Talia, too, but they hadn’t worked long together. “We didn’t get the funding for it until later in the year,” Foret says. “Talia was progressing so quickly. If she’d had more time, she would have made a lot more progress.”

In the days before the big test, P.S. 8’s third-graders were in a full-scale panic. Teacher Monique Jerry says one girl’s mother called and said her daughter had been throwing up every morning; she had the kids do relaxation exercises the morning of the test. And the teachers were as nervous as the kids; P.S. 8 is in the midst of a turnaround, but nearly all the kids are from poor backgrounds and struggling. “Let’s just say there was a knot in my stomach from the time the test was announced to the time the scores came out,” Foret says.

Eight of the 28 third-graders ended up flunking. When Talia scored a 1, Foret tried her best to cushion the blow; if Talia is held back, she wondered, would she still want to read the way she wants to now?

But a few weeks after announcing the end of social promotion, the Department of Education introduced an appeals process. Foret started building a case for Talia and another student. Talia had done well on other tests like E-Class, an untimed exam that she took one-on-one with her teacher instead of in a group setting.

“The appeals process should have been the assessment process,” says P.S. 8 third-grade teacher Tanya Foret.

“As I was working on it, I was telling the story of these kids as readers from beginning to end, and I thought, This is such a worthwhile pursuit,” Foret says. “I think the appeals process should have been the assessment process.”

By now it’s a familiar pas de deux in the public schools: First, the Department of Education announces a grand new policy that will change everything, then voices from inside the system cry out in shock and awe while outsiders applaud the mayor for trying to tame the system. It happened when Chancellor Joel Klein unveiled new mandatory reading and math programs, it happened again when the mayor proposed a streamlined eight-page teachers’ contract, and it happened most explosively this spring, when Bloomberg pushed through his anti-social-promotion policy, nudging out three members of his educational-policy panel in the process. Bloomberg looked tough—by design, of course. “Yes, they may cry a little bit,” he said. “But children in the third grade cry a lot, and it’s part of the growing-up process. They have to learn that they’ve got to do the work.” And his poll numbers went up.

But what’s happened since then has borne out another familiar pattern—retrenchment, compromise, a quiet acknowledgment of certain realities like Talia’s. After the headlines, most of the mayor’s more tough-minded education policies tend to be tempered.

A reported 11,700 kids failed the reading and math exams. When all is said and done, though, by summer’s end the number of kids held back could still be slightly more than usual, but basically comparable to last year. The appeals process, it turns out, offers second, third, and even fourth chances. “We believe strongly that there really should be multiple criteria for making such a decision about students,” says Carmen Fariña, Joel Klein’s deputy for instruction who replaced the less conciliatory Diana Lam. “The appeals process was designed to show we were not looking just at the test. And we want to make sure that the children’s writing ability as well as their classroom reading work is taken into consideration.”

But that’s not to say nothing’s changed—the city has now budgeted $115 million to focus on children like Talia. “I think the issue is, if we’re really investing the money in this, we want to make sure the children go with the competencies they need into fourth grade,” Fariña says. “We have never had this much time and energy and financial resources paid to intervention strategies.” Talia has a wealth of options, actually. First, there’s her appeal. Then, if she loses, she’ll have the option of attending a special section of summer school the Department of Education is calling the Summer Success Academy. Afterward, she can retake the ELA on August 9. Even if she doesn’t go to summer school, she can still retake it.

If Talia scores a 2 or higher, she gets promoted. And if she scores a 1 again, she has yet another appeal: Her summer teacher can look at her overall work and recommend promotion. And so what seemed like a hard-line policy has been softened. “I was a little frustrated that all this blood, sweat, and tears were going into this one test,” Foret says. “It’s heart-wrenching because time is so important—it really broke into our momentum in reading instruction.”

Ending social promotion was politically canny, a Giuliani-like demonstration of tough love. Now comes the hard part, trying to make it work in the classroom. Talia’s appeal was submitted to P.S. 8’s principal, Seth Phillips, who will send it to the district superintendent, who then will decide whether Talia moves up or goes to summer school.

To principals like Phillips, it’s a mixed blessing, a stick and carrot—equal parts intimidation and, now, fierce attention. “This did provide a real sense of urgency,” he says. “You had to stop and look at your practices—are you doing the absolute best for these students? But these kids are old enough to understand how important this test is. That was the hardest thing for kids—the pressure.” Phillips is sending appeals for three third-graders but not the others. “For the mayor, it’s an abstract concept. It’s numbers,” he says. “We see these kids every day, and it’s hard. We’re vested in them. We care about them.”

Students of Summer