Study finds more waivers than reported

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Far more low-scoring students have received “waivers” from promotion requirements over the past three years than the School Board has reported, according to new data from the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

But school officials stand by their numbers.

Last year, for example, the board reported waiving 808 students at the end of 3rd and 6th grades. The Consortium puts the total at 3,528. The number of 8th-graders waived was not readily available from either source.

The board’s numbers are based on waiver paperwork, according to Schools and Regions Chief Blondean Davis; the Consortium’s are based on a computer analysis of official student records.

“We’ve got to get the administration of this [waiver process] straightened out,” says Melissa Roderick of the Consortium.

Clearly identifying students who move up a grade even though their test scores fall below promotion targets is crucial, she says, because they may need as much continuing extra help as students who are retained.

“Waived” students, she explains, have not fared well when they hit the next promotion gate. In 1997, nearly 2,000 6th-graders advanced to 7th grade without minimum test scores, according to Roderick’s analysis. Of those who remained in the district two years later, only 60 percent of those students got past the 8th-grade promotion gate; for some, promotion again required waivers.

Davis oversees the waiver process and says she has reported totals accurately. With one exception, she says, there is no alternate route for promotion besides meeting the official test scores or receiving waivers from a regional education officer. The exception is for students facing a third year of retention; they automatically are waived and designated as needing special education.

Some special education and bilingual students are exempt from the promotion policy, but these students were not part of the Consortium’s analysis.

Davis suspects a computer glitch. The board’s computer system automatically moves students to the next grade; to retain a student officially, the school clerk must manually change his or her grade assignment. Davis speculates that the Consortium pulled records before clerks made the updates. She gives Oct. 1 as an outside date by which changes would be completed.

Consortium Deputy Director John Easton says that the computer records used in the analysis are dated Oct. 1. He acknowledges some error due to anomalies associated with a handful of year- round schools and clerical mistakes at the school level. An analysis of last year’s records found a 10 percent rate of school clerical error, and he believes that the Consortium’s waiver totals are off by that amount.

The waiver process, as Davis describes it, begins after spring testing with a written request from the child’s classroom teacher. School principals forward those requests to their regional education officer (REO). Parents also may make a request directly to the REO. Even students recommended for a waiver must attend summer school; final decisions are made after the August re-test.

There are test-score cutoffs for waivers, too, says Davis. Those cutoffs are slightly below the ones required for automatic promotion. At 3rd grade, students must score at least a 2.6 in reading and math on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills in order to be considered for a waiver; the score required for automatic promotion is 2.8, roughly a year below the average score for 3rd grade.

A Consortium analysis made at CATALYST’s request found that last year a couple thousand 3rd- and 6th-graders advanced even though their scores fell below the waiver cutoffs; there were 1,311 such students in 3rd grade and 962 in 6th grade.

Davis disputes those numbers as “a total impossibility.”

Numbers from the Office of Schools and Regions don’t square with recollections of REOs, either. Last year, all six told CATALYST that in June and August of the preceding year, 1998, they approved only a handful, if any, waivers. However, the Office of Schools and Regions told CATALYST that 1,491 waivers had been granted in 1998 to students in 3rd, 6th and 8th grades.

Beverly Tunney, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, echoes the REOs. “The first year, there were REOs that would not grant a waiver,” she recalls. “They stuck to their guns. I got lots of complaints from principals—even the second year—about kids who tested well the year before and had a bad test day, about kids who missed it by a tenth of a point [and didn’t get a waiver]. But now the norm is considering every child.”

Meanwhile, the Consortium’s analysis shows a decreasing percentage of failing students waived every year since 1997.

‘Secretive’ process

Currently, teachers, students and the school reform community view the waiver process as a secretive one, Roderick finds. In her view, a clearly articulated, carefully administered waiver policy has enormous potential as a motivational tool.

As an example, she cites a teacher who kept her Summer Bridge class on its toes with a chart listing the daily accomplishments of each student, including showing up for class, the number of pages read the night before and whether homework had been turned in. Roderick says that one 8th-grader she interviewed “was really motivated by that list because the teacher kept saying that [that] was her argument for a waiver if they missed the [promotion scores] by a couple of points.”

As Davis describes the policy, students seeking waivers need grades of A or B in core subjects, steady or accelerated progress in ITBS scores, good attendance and teacher recommendations.

However, those factors are considered only if students meet minimum scores for a waiver. The difference between the cutoff score for a waiver and the cutoff score for automatic promotion amounts to as little as a single question on the reading portion of the ITBS. On one version of the 3rd-grade test, a student with 16 correct answers would pass, one with 14 would fail, and one with 15 might be awarded a waiver based on grades, attendance and so forth.

This system is the basis for board officials’ repeated assertions that they do not rely on a single test score in making promotion decisions.

Last September, Davis and Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas said the School Board would allow more flexibility in considering factors besides test scores. To that end, Vallas said that the board would keep the same minimum test scores needed for a waiver even while raising the bar for automatic promotion from 6th and 8th grades.

In March, Davis and Chief Education Officer Cozette Buckney both suggested that the cutoff score required for a waiver might rise after all but that no decision had yet been made.