The city has taken a big step to scale back on anxiety over state tests. A new promotion policy takes the high-stakes out of testing for grades 3-8, at least when it comes to determining who gets promoted to the next grade and who must attend summer school.

The Department of Education announced the new policy today, which, if approved by the Panel for Educational Policy in May, will mean that a student cannot be held back simply because of a low score (Level 1) on the state reading or math exam. Instead, "multiple measures" will be used to determine promotion, including report card grades and schoolwork as well as test scores.  

"We have listened and worked closely with families, teachers and principals to establish a new promotion policy that complies with State law and empowers educators, takes the temperature down around testing, and keeps rigorous standards in place," said schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in a statement.

In a major change, summer school students--who represent some 10 percent of children in grades 3-8 each year--will not have to spend their summers prepping for multiple choice exams in August. Instead, promotion decisions will be made after considering summer school work as well as a portfolio of children's work from the previous school year. This change came about in part because teachers complained that summer school was too focused on test prep. Now, the DOE says, teachers will be able to focus on instruction and incorporate more enrichment activities. 

The promotion policy does not address one key concern for students in grades 4 and 7--how scores affect admission to middle school and high school. Some selective schools, such as IS 187 Christa MacAuliffe in Brooklyn, admit students solely based on their standardized test scores. The New York State budget and amendments to state law passed last week, stipulates that state test scores cannot be the only criteria for promotion or admission to a school. It is too late to change middle and high school admissions for this year but the DOE officials said they are reviewing the policies for next year.

Some principals and education advocates applauded the new promotion policy. "It's one important piece of the picture," said Liz Phillips, principal of PS 321 in Brooklyn. "It's a huge step forward that we have multiple measures for promotion, that the rest of state has had. It's only New York City that has had the test only for promotion." But the tests are still too high stakes, she said, with results being considered in teacher and principal evaluations, by state, not city policy. And, she noted, that the policy "doesn't take away from the fact that they were lousy tests that a lot of schools spent a lot of time sacrificing time for physical education, art and music to prepare for."

At Brooklyn New School, where 80 percent of students opted out of taking the ELA exam this year, Principal Anna Allanbrook said there are measures that are much more important that state exams in determining promotion. "Student work is really the indicator," she said. "Our teachers are assessing students all year round. And the good, old-fashioned indicator they used to use--attendance. Most kids who miss a lot of school are not going to be ready to move up to the next grade."

Billy Easton, Executive Director of the Alliance for Quality Education, called the chancellor's decision "a major change in the direction of education in New York City."

The announcement of the new promotion policy came in the midst of parent protests about this year's ELA tests. PS 321 was the site of a huge anti-test rally last week and Manhattan schools are planning similar protests on Friday. Parents and educators complained that the tests are poorly constructed and do not accurately measure students' skills. Last year, after the hasty roll-out of state tests aligned with the Common Core Standards, test scores plummeted, and 47 percent of students in grades 3-8 scored at the lowest level either on math or reading exams.