Popular despite the research

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In April, researchers who have closely tracked Chicago’s practice of retaining students who have especially low test scores switched from a cautionary yellow light to a blazing red.

Their latest studies again found that holding low-achieving students back did not help them academically and increased the likelihood they would drop out. The retained students had fallen far behind their peers in the earliest years of school. By the time the school system provided extra help to these students, researchers found, the help was not enough.

“They should get rid of retention,” says Melissa Roderick, a director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research and a co-author of one of the studies. “It just didn’t do anything for these kids.”

Anticipating the Consortium’s red light, the School Board already had tapped the breaks on its policy, removing math scores from the promotional criteria and barring repeat retentions under certain circumstances. But the board refused to stop retaining students altogether.

“I am convinced in my heart this is the right thing to do,” said Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan, arguing that promotion standards are needed to motivate schools and students. Duncan has lots of company.

Decades of research on student retention have found that repeating a grade generally does not improve students’ academic performance and, in the long run, increases their chances of dropping out. Yet the popularity of such policies is growing.

Chicago, which began retaining low-scoring 8th-graders in 1996 and 3rd- and 6th-graders in 1997, has led the most recent wave of retention policies.

In two State of the Union addresses, President Bill Clinton praised Chicago’s tough stand on promoting students as a model for the nation.

Since then a handful of states, including Texas, Florida and North Carolina, and at least 18 cities have mandated promotion requirements at certain grade levels. “Many cities took their cue from Chicago,” observes Michael Casserly, of the Council of the Great City Schools.

In the 1980s, New York City was in the lead with its Promotional Gates program, which required low-scoring 4th- and 7th-graders to repeat those grades. The students were put in classes with 20 or fewer students who were taught by specially trained teachers. Initially, their achievement rose, but then the gains subsided, according to a Board of Education study. Meanwhile, the dropout rate among students who had been retained in 7th grade began to climb. By 1990, the program was gone.

Despite this experience, New York City again has a policy to retain low-scoring students. This time, it is aimed at 3rd-graders.

Nationwide, 68 percent of parents would support standards for promotion even if it meant that their own child would be held back a grade, a 2000 survey by Public Agenda, a non-profit polling and research organization, found.

In Chicago at least, the overwhelming majority of teachers agree that the CPS promotion policy is consistent with their own views about what’s best for student learning, according to a recent Consortium survey.

Kathy Christie, who tracks polices and research for the Education Commission of the States, says that policy makers tend to disregard the research on retention because they don’t see better alternatives. Passing unprepared students to the next grade is likewise ineffective, she continues, and legislators feel that retention policies can at least spur schools and parents to focus more attention on low-achieving kids.

Indeed, when the Chicago Board of Education dropped math scores as a retention trigger, it drew fire from local editorial pages. “If the kids aren’t learning, the solution isn’t to surrender, to push them on through the school system and pop them out with a degree that is meaningless,” the Chicago Tribune protested.

Gary Orfield, Harvard University professor of education and social policy, thinks politicians are ignoring retention’s long-term negative impact in favor of short-term political gain. Cracking down on automatic promotion “seems bold and decisive,” he says.

Opponents of retention say the remedy is to promote students but give them individualized help in the next grade. That way, students have a chance to catch up without the negative effects of retention, explains Don Moore, executive director of the research and advocacy group Designs for Change.

MOTIVATES BORDERLINE KIDS

However, others fear that automatic promotion, even with extra help, will undermine the motivational force that promotion standards provide in some cases.

“The argument for this policy is not that the retained students would do better but that students overall would do better in order to avoid retention,” says Fred Hess, director of the Center for Urban School Policy at Northwestern University. “The tradeoff is between a few kids who might drop out anyway and a great number of students who do better throughout school as a result of the policy.”

Chicago’s policy did in fact motivate 6th- and 8th-graders to work harder, and their teachers and parents to offer low-achievers more support, according to surveys conducted between 1994 and 2001 by the Consortium.

Roderick also acknowledges that it would be hard to get students to attend summer school without the threat of retention. In the 1998-99 school year, the Consortium asked 6th- and 8th-graders whether they would do so.

“Their answer was 100 percent ‘No,'” says Roderick.

Roderick doubts that retention provides any motivation in 3rd grade, where the largest number of students are retained. Compared to older students, 3rd-graders are less able to manage their own study habits, she observes. And while many older students simply needed to fill in gaps in their learning—a manageable task with short-term effort—many 3rd-graders are encountering material for the first time with huge deficits in vocabulary and reading comprehension.

Besides, she says, “I don’t think a 3rd-grader, particularly a low-skilled 3rd-grader can think that far ahead and understand what it means to be retained.”

CPS officials credit the motivational effects of the promotion policy for spurring systemwide improvements. Standardized test scores did rise in the wake of the promotion policy, especially among the lowest achievers, but researchers say there likely were many causes, including the policy of putting schools on probation and removing principals from some of those schools.

With rising test scores among students entering high school, the dropout rate for students who got to high school declined. However, Consortium researcher Elaine Allensworth found that students who were retained under the board’s policy faced an even higher risk of dropping out. Being retained in 8th grade raised a student’s likelihood for dropping out by age 19 by 29 percent, she reports.

STILL MORE HELP ON THE WAY

While the School Board has rejected the researchers’ advice to scrap retention, it has taken to heart their recommendations to provide extra help earlier. Next school year, 20 to 40 high-retention schools are to get full-day kindergartens and preschools, a new literacy program, an expanded summer school and closer supervision.

Citywide, retained students also will get extra attention, school officials say. For example, all schools will be required to write and follow a personalized learning plan for each retained student. Previously retained 4th- and 7th-graders will be required to attend summer school. And the district’s 320 school-based reading specialists will work with classroom teachers on strategies to help retained students.

Roderick, who opposes automatic promotion alone, thinks the school system is headed in the right direction with its new interventions.

But for many children, the district’s intensified focus on reading instruction will not be enough to prevent school failure, Roderick predicts. In case studies conducted during the 1998-99 school year, she found that retained students had fallen behind for many reasons, including undiagnosed health problems, needing eyeglasses and high absenteeism.

Retaining students won’t solve any of these underlying problems, she observes. Yet a comprehensive program to address their health and family issues is unlikely given the district’s financial constraints. “Without any extra help from the state, I don’t know how they’re going to do it.”

To contact Elizabeth Duffrin, call (312) 673-3879 or send an e-mail to duffrin@catalyst-chicago.org.