Board constantly tinkers with the policy

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Every year since 1996, the School Board has revamped its promotion policy in an effort to raise standards while retaining fewer students. Some changes raised the bar for promotion, while others created loopholes and second chances. Extra supports for retained students have come and gone, some with little effect. Here are strategies the board has tried:

Revised requirements

Raising the bar. The School Board raised the cutoff scores required for 8th-grade promotion to high school every year from 1997 to 2000. Pass rates were fairly stable until 1999 and then dipped.

Waivers. Schools have always been allowed to request waivers to promote students who just missed the official cutoff scores but had good grades and attendance. In 2000, the Consortium reported many irregularities in the handling of waivers. For one, some regional officers were more lenient in granting them than others. Also in some years, many more students received waivers than the School Board acknowledged.

More waivers. For 2001 promotions, the School Board came up with a more structured waiver policy that also reduced its reliance on standardized test scores. It raised the scores required on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) for automatic promotion, but lowered the minimum scores required for a waiver. Students who fell between the two could still advance if they had completed summer school and performed well on other measures, including grades and attendance.

New cut-off scores. In 2002, the board made a technical adjustment to its test score measure. At the same time, it adopted a new form of the ITBS, which boosted Chicago’s reading scores but lowered its math scores. That year, the number of retained students soared, largely because they just missed the math cutoff score.

Math requirement dropped. At the end of 2003 summer school, the board quietly dropped math scores as a promotion requirement, and the number of retained students again declined. The change became policy in 2004.

Second chances

Mid-year promotion. In 1999 and 2000, retained students retook the ITBS in January and jumped immediately to the next grade level if they earned a passing score. The practice reduced the number of students who were over-age for their grade and therefore at higher risk of dropping out. But schools complained that the mid-year reassignments were difficult for them to manage and for students to adjust to, says William McGowan, formerly with the CPS Office of Schools and Regions. Some 8th-graders still are promoted mid year, often into the second semester of 9th-grade classes, according to the Office of High School Programs.

Double-promotion. For several years, retained 3rd- and 6th-graders who tested at grade level by the end of the year could attend a special summer program and then skip 4th or 7th grade to rejoin their original classmates. But the program was expensive, so the district dropped it, says McGowan, adding that few students qualified.

Extra supports

Summer school for 3rd-, 6th-, and 8th-graders. Students who failed to meet the standardized test scores required for promotion were required to attend a six- to seven-week summer school program and retake the ITBS. Summer school substantially increased the number of students able to meet promotion requirements, the Consortium found.

Summer school for 1st- and 2nd-graders. Beginning in 1998, the board opened an optional summer school for low-achieving 1st- and 2nd-graders. The citywide program ended last summer. But this summer, there will be a mandatory summer school for low-achievers in 2nd grade who attend certain schools with high retention rates.

Programs for retained students

After-school programs. The board offers extra instruction in math and reading at nearly all elementary schools. Retained students at low-performing schools are required to attend.

Retired teacher tutors. In 1997, the board began to hire retired teaches and college students to tutor retained students. The initiative ended after several years due to budget cuts, says McGowan.

Smaller class size. In 1998, the board hired extra teachers to lower class size for retained students at some schools. That program was dropped in 1999 when the district received a federal grant that paid for more than 200 teachers to reduce class size, but not specifically for retained students.

Despite the extra help, retained 3rd- and 6th-graders did not show any more improvement in their reading test scores than did similar students who were promoted, according to the Consortium.

Special schools for over-age 8th-graders. Beginning in 1997, students who would reach the age of 15 by December 1 but had not yet met the promotion requirements for high school were assigned to special regional “transition centers.”

There they got remedial instruction in math and reading, and extra counseling, tutoring and other support services. Students who met promotion requirements moved on to high school, but about 80 percent still dropped out by the end of 10th grade, according to the Office of High School Programs.