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  May 22, 2005

Moving in the Right Direction

By Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg

I've always believed that if we set high academic standards for our city's students, and surround them with the right support and encouragement, they will achieve more than we can ever imagine. This is the guiding philosophy behind our ambitious efforts to reform our public school system. And last week, with the release of the results from this year's State English Language Arts exam, we have even more proof that it's working.

The number of fourth graders in the city who are reading and writing at grade level has now reached a record high. Nearly 60% met or exceeded the State's standards - a 10 percentage point increase over last year when fewer than 50% did so. We won't be satisfied 'til we are closer to 100% - but the fact that we had the biggest one-year gain in reading scores ever is very heartening.

Perhaps most encouraging is the progress made by segments of the student population that have struggled the most in the past. For instance, the five regions that had the weakest performances last year were the same five that made the biggest improvements this year. And for the first time since the State began administering the test in 1999, more than half of the fourth-grade Hispanic and African-American students taking it met or exceeded standards.

There are a number of factors behind our fourth graders' stunning improvement. One of the most significant is our decision, early last spring, to finally end "social promotion" in the third grade - the practice of automatically promoting kids, regardless of whether they're ready for a higher level of work. For the remainder of that school year, we identified the third graders who were in danger of being held back, and provided them with the intervention programs they needed, such as our Summer Success Academy. By the time the new school year began last September, we had promoted roughly the same number of kids to fourth grade as had been promoted the previous year. The difference was that, for the first time, every one of those students was ready to do fourth grade work. The fourth grade State scores confirm this; nearly 90% of third graders who attended the Summer Success Academy passed the test.

The scores in eighth grade, however, also highlight how much more work still needs to be done. Fewer than one-third of eighth-graders met or exceeded the State literacy standards - down slightly from the previous year. This is, in part, because eighth-graders haven't had the benefit of our new intervention efforts which, by and large, we've concentrated on the lower grades. But that's about to change. We will soon invest $40 million to improve performance in our middle schools through a number of initiatives, including an expanded summer program.

Of course, when it comes to state scores, let's not make the mistake of reducing their meaning to just a bunch of numbers. Remember, they represent our children - and the potential we believe they all can realize. All New Yorkers should be happy - not because we can point to a positive figure on a page - but because we are laying a solid foundation for our kids to succeed later in life. Everyone is working harder - principals, parents, students, and, above all, our teachers.

When we ended social promotion in the third grade last year, it was a drastic but necessary change. It was imperative that we be honest about who was learning and who wasn't. These latest test scores remind us that we need to confront our problems, not cover them up. And when we do that, and focus our resources and our energy on our kids, great things can happen.