Board raises promotion floor but creates more room for waivers

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As 6th and 8th-graders face even steeper requirements for promotion next spring, the Reform Board will give more leeway for “waiving” students who miss the cutoff scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills but show strength in other areas, such as grades and attendance.

At the end of summer school, students who narrowly miss the minimum math and reading scores required for promotion at 3rd, 6th and 8th grade are eligible for waiver consideration. Principals apply for waivers from the regional offices, usually at the request of classroom teachers. Parents also may apply directly through the regional office. The six regional education officers (REOs) make the final decisions under the supervision of Blondean Davis, chief officer of Schools and Regions.

Of elementary students who fell short on tests this August, 1,545, or 15 percent, were granted waivers. The board declined to disclose the number of waivers granted to students in academic preparatory centers—formerly known as transition centers—for 8th-graders too old to be retained in elementary school.

Test scores also figure in the grant-ing of waivers. To be considered, students must achieve minimum scores that are only slightly below those required for automatic promotion. (See accompanying chart.) Third- and 6th-graders who already have been retained twice are an exception; in August, 165 failed a third time but were “waived” ahead and scheduled for special education screening.

In granting waivers, the board always has considered grades in math and reading, previous test scores and teacher recommendations. This year, REOs also looked for growth in test scores, good attendance and grades of A or B in five subject areas.

By considering growth in achievement, schools can advance students who fell behind early in their school careers yet now are making steady or accelerated progress, notes Davis.

Waivers hold steady

Even with new criteria, the number of waivers remained roughly the same this year as last year, according to schools chief Paul Vallas.

The number of students retained this year also declined slightly, even with a higher promotion requirement for 8th grade, he observes. As promotion requirements rise again this year, he expects the number of retainees and waivers to remain constant. “Test scores are increasing faster than the bar is [rising].”

However, the percentage of students exempt from the testing requirements because they are in bilingual or special education rose from 21 percent last year to 25 percent this year, according to a Catalyst analysis of School Board data. The number of 3rd- to 8th-graders identified as needing special education services rose from 25,029 to 28,624.

The cutoff scores for 6th-grade promotion will rise in June for the first time. Required 8th-grade scores have risen steadily every year, and will rise again in June. Vallas says he expects the 8th-grade cutoff to rise one last time within the next two years to 8.0.

If 8.0 had been in force this year, the percentage of 8th-graders in summer school who earned promotion without a waiver would have dropped significantly, according to an analysis by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Among those who needed a higher reading score, the pass rate would have dropped from 49 percent to 30 percent, and for those needing a higher math score, the pass rate would have dropped from 56 percent to 26 percent.

Three principals contacted by Catalyst say they welcome the higher promotion standards. “Most definitely, it’s going to be difficult for some students [but] I think we have to raise standards,” says Sandra Satinover, principal of Jenner Elementary in the Cabrini-Green area. “When students graduate from elementary school, high schools should know these kids are prepared.”

Eighth-graders and their parents have become accustomed to the rising standards, the principals say. “This is the fourth year of this, and it’s hitting home. The kids know what they have to do to walk across the stage in June,” says Christ Kalamatas, principal of Von Humbolt Elementary in West Town.

Although they were not aware of the minimum scores required for waivers, these principals find the policy reasonable. “At some point, you have to draw the line and indicate where you would even consider a waiver,” insists Faye Terrell-Perkins, principal of Tilton Elementary in West Garfield Park. “[Otherwise] I think you would sacrifice the issue of a promotion policy and it [would] become a joke.”

‘Right direction’

Timothy Shanahan, director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, calls the broadened range of criteria for a waiver “a step in the right direction” but still objects to the minimum test scores.

The problem, he says, is that every standardized test contains what statisticians call a “standard error of measurement,” which explains the degree to which scores may vary simply due to chance. When you use that score by itself to determine eligibility for a waiver, “you’re trying to make precise decisions on information that really isn’t solid,” says Shanahan.

Even when all the evidence suggests a student is below level, “there are lots of research studies [showing] that they make stronger progress moving forward than being held back,” he adds.

And even with the extra help the board has given retained students, such as a longer school day and tutoring, some still fail to reach the promotion standards, he notes. “Lots of kids who get retained don’t really progress.”