Last year, the New York City Department of Education raised the standards for passing the 8th grade and ended social promotion--the practice of letting failing students matriculate to keep them with their peers. Radio Rookie AJ Frazier has always just skated by, so this meant he needed to change his ways. AJ reports on how the higher standards impact his work ethic and explores the shady line between getting promoted or being left behind.
For decades school administrators have been debating whether students who don't meet basic standards should move up to the next grade. It's known as social promotion—and the New York City schools have done away with it twice over three decades, only to reinstate it. Now the Bloomberg administration is ending social promotion once again. But Rookie Reporter Amon "AJ" Frazier found the new standards are more flexible than they seem.
AJ: 7 o'clock already?
NARRATION: My room is my sanctuary...my happy place, my world...no one telling me to do anything.
AJ: Gotta get up and go to school.
NARRATION: And anybody who disobeys these rules will be repelled, immediately.
NARRATION: But my door is a portal to the real world.
AJ: Oh, what's wrong Aaliyah?
AALIYAH: (crying) I can't find my shoe!
NARRATION: I have my little sister crying to me about her problems--
MOM: Motivate yourself.
NARRATION: My mom nagging on me about grades--
AJ: Oh my god!
NARRATION: And my teachers at school, screaming on me about my work.
MS. LUCENTI: Class sit down, sit down.
NARRATION: I started the 8th grade a few weeks after the school year began--which was right around the time we moved out of a homeless shelter. It was a tough time for both me and my mother, but it was nothing I couldn't handle.
MS. LUCENTI: Let's begin from the beginning...
NARRATION: Then at MS 80, they told us that they raised the standards for passing the 8th grade. Now this, I wasn't so sure I could handle.
AJ: Do you think that more kids are going to fail this year because of the high standards?
MS. RIVERA: I don't think so.
NARRATION: That's my principal Ms. Rivera. She's like the mom of MS 80.
MS. RIVERA: I think that the 8th graders are going to try their best to make the mark.
NARRATION: We had to get a 70 average in all our classes, even though most schools only require a 65. Plus we had to come to school 90 percent of the time and pass all our state tests.
(bell, hallway sounds fade in)
NARRATION: Ms. Rivera tried to help us by stretching out the school day so we could study for the tests. She even let us hand in work that was way overdue.
NARRATION: But me, I was buggin' out.
AJ: Do you think I'm a smart kid?
MS. LUCENTI: I think you're very intelligent.
AJ: Ok, thank you--
MS. LUCENTI: However, when it comes to smart, I don't know how smart you really are because sometimes you make the wrong choices.
NARRATION: This is Ms. Lucenti, my social studies teacher. She's always barking on me.
MS. LUCENTI: Can you show any class work you've done during social studies in the last two weeks?
AJ: Last two weeks? Oh, that's easy.
MS. LUCENTI: Yeah, can you show us?
AJ: I don't have my book!
NARRATION: By the middle of the year I was failing social studies and literacy. And so were a lot of my friends.
AJ: Are you going to pass the 8th grade?
ANTONIO: I'm hoping I do. I'm failing everything right now.
AJ: Why's that?
VICTOR: Me too!
ANTONIO: Cause I don't do nothing.
NARRATION: Since I was failing, the school hooked me up with a mentor, Mr. Underwood.
AJ: Peace out Mr. U-Wood!
NARRATION: He's like the little engine that could--well, almost could.
MR. UNDERWOOD: Students need to know exactly what a good education gives you and I haven't figured out how to make them realize that.
NARRATION: I started wondering, "Why don't I do my work?" And for awhile I just blamed the school. The schools in New York City get report cards. They're graded on how well students do on the tests each year.
AJ: I don't know what MS 80 got on their little evaluation test.
NARRATION: So I looked up MS 80's grades.
AJ: And our overall score is: 49.9 out of 100 which is a B. Wow. How would that be a B if we got less than half right?
(walking into the Department of Education)
NARRATION: I headed down to the Department of Education to get some answers from one of the head people in charge, Ms. Sabrina Hope-King.
AJ: Um. I have a personal question for you. If I got a 49.9 out of 100 on a test, what grade would you give me?
MS. HOPE-KING: An F.
AJ: An F, ok. MS 80 only?
MS. HOPE-KING: Why do you ask?
AJ: Oh, cause MS 80 only got a 49.9 out of 100 points but they got a B, why is that?
MS. HOPE-KING: Oh!
(laughing fades under)
NARRATION: Yeah buddy! Deep down inside I knew that I couldn't blame my school for my failing. Ms. Sabrina Hope-King says that the higher standards are supposed to help students like me.
MS. HOPE-KING: We have data that shows that if 8th graders are not achieving at a higher level that your chances of high school success greatly diminish.
NARRATION: And I do not want to be part of that data, period.
NARRATION: So one night at the end of the year I made a plan in my mind.
AJ: I have completed three more assignments.
NARRATION: And the plan was:
AJ: Page 93--
NARRATION: Get the work I needed to pass, go home...
AJ: Page 711--
NARRATION: Do it.
AJ: Chapter review.
NARRATION: I e-mailed Ms. Lucenti to tell her I did three pieces of make-up work.
AJ: (typing) I will inform you when I complete more assignments. Sending message.
NARRATION: In a hot second I made a miraculous recovery.
AJ: Do you know if you passed?
NARRATION: So did my friend Vic.
VICTOR: Yes, I know that I passed because I got a cap and gown and I didn't get a promotion in doubt letter.
AJ: Same here, youngajills passed. Anyway...
AJ: Ok, I'm ignoring that.
MOM: Make me proud son, make me proud.
NARRATION: My mom is unveiling my graduation certificate.
MOM: The achievement of Amon Frazier.
NARRATION: When I found out I was graduating, oh man, I was wild hype.
MOM: So why wait until the end of the school year to do this good when you could have done this good throughout the whole school year?
NARRATION: This good? Let me explain something to you right quick: My mom might be happy about the 80s I got last marking period in social studies and literacy but that only brought my average up to a 65 in both classes. So all year they injected us with this hype that we needed 70s to pass—and come to find out, that's all it was, hype. I did well enough on the state tests so they passed me with 65s.
AJ: What kind of student do you see me as?
MS. MERCEDES: Amon.
AJ: Honest, answers, please.
NARRATION: This is my dean Ms. Mercedes. She's the sheriff of the 4th floor.
MS. MERCEDES: I don't think that you should have been allowed to pass 8th grade.
MS. MERCEDES: Because I think that you didn't do what you had to do personally or academically, I think you just skated by.
NARRATION: I did skate by...and I don't really know if that's a blessing or a curse.
(on-hold music fades in)
NARRATION: I called up my Principal and they put me on hold.
MS. RIVERA: Hello?
NARRATION: I wanted to ask her, "Why did she let me pass?"
MS. RIVERA: I think that you needed to move on. I don't believe in social promotion like that, but I do believe that what is the purpose of holding over a child?
AJ: Um hmm.
MS. RIVERA: Many of you have proven to me that you have the cognitive skills it was just that you were unorganized and or lazy. Well, let me ask you a question, what lesson did you learn?
AJ: My lesson was, you know just do the work you can so you won't stress yourself out at the end of the year.
MS. RIVERA: Then it was worth it, you did learn the lesson. So that when you go on to high school you won't make the same mistakes.
NARRATION: I'm not sure I learned the lesson, but I sure learned a lesson—that these standards are not as serious as they're trying to make us believe. Back at the DOE, Mr. Santiago Taveras told me that even if you don't pass the state tests your teacher can still find a way to push you forward.
MR. TAVERAS: The promotion policy allows for teachers to present to the principal a portfolio of the student's ability. And if that body of work is good then the principal is able to promote that student as well. So the test to me is not the end all and be all, alright?
AJ: Yeah, cool.
AALIYAH: Stop jumping on AJ's bed! Stop jumping on AJ's bed!
NARRATION: When I come home from school I step back through the portal to my world...but I guess I'm not the only one that exists here.
AJ: All you humans will be expunged from my room in about five seconds.
NARRATION: It's been about a month since I started high school. And I made a new rule for myself, no video games before homework is done.
NARRATION: I read this study and there's actual proof that if during my freshman year, I get the same grades I got last year, I'm more likely to drop out than to graduate. Never in my life have I imagined myself to be a high school drop out, not until I read that study. Pray for me.
I'm Amon Frazier, AKA youngajillz and for WNYC this is my radio story until next time, out.