What we know about efforts to end ‘social promotion’

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Chart: Number of retained students rises, falls

Chart: Number of retained students rises, falls

The Consortium on Chicago School Research has conducted several studies on various aspects of the Chicago Public Schools program to ensure students are academically ready for the next grade. Here Catalyst Senior Editor Elizabeth Duffrin sorts the findings to answer fundamental questions.

Does retaining kids help?

Generally, no.

Retained 3rd-graders showed the same inadequate progress in reading over two years as similarly low-achieving students who, in previous years, had been promoted to the next grade.

Retained 6th-graders actually fared worse in reading than their promoted counterparts.

Retained 3rd-graders were three times more likely to be placed in special education within two years, compared to similarly low-achieving students who were promoted.

Retained 6th-graders were six times as likely to be placed. And the special education placement did not accelerate students’ growth in reading. The high placement rate suggests that many of the special education referrals were unnecessary, according to researcher Melissa Roderick.

Students who were retained in 8th grade were far more likely to drop out. The retained students who dropped out did so at an earlier grade and, consequently, had earned fewer high school credits than did the non-retained students who dropped out.

So, is it better to pass kids to the next grade even if their skills are weak?

No. Students who are retained and enter high school behind their same-age peers are more likely to drop out, but so are students who enter high school reading substantially below grade level.

Why do some students fall so far behind?

The reasons for low achievement are many, researchers say. They include problems with particular students, particular schools and the district as a whole.

Student problems. Retained students typically start school with lower academic skills than their peers and then fall further behind each year. Based on standardized reading scores, the sharpest drop-off in achievement for low-performing students occurs in the primary grades. “They go nowhere in 1st grade. They go nowhere in 2nd grade,” says Roderick.

School problems. More than half the students retained by CPS have come from 100 of the city’s 600 public schools. These schools tend to have a higher-than-average proportion of disadvantaged students, but Roderick notes that there are schools with similar student bodies that perform better.

These findings suggest that many students repeat a grade due to low-quality instruction, says Roderick.

System shortcomings. Previous case studies by Roderick and a team of researchers revealed that retained students may suffer from a combination of learning, health and social problems. Common problems are high absenteeism in the primary grades, frequent school changes and health problems that may include poor eyesight, depression or asthma, she says. The district does not have any comprehensive system for schools to identify, track and address these problems, she adds.

Did the threat of retention motivate students, teachers and parents to try harder?

For 6th- and 8th-graders, yes, according to Consortium surveys.

In 2001, 62 percent of teachers reported that the threat of retention motivated students to work harder. And low-achieving students reported much greater support from parents and teachers than they did before the promotion policy was implemented. The gap in the amount of parental and teacher support reported by low-achieving and average- to high-achieving students has narrowed substantially since 1994, the Consortium found.

The Consortium did not study the motivation of 3rd-graders, as it considered them too young to answer survey questions.

Did the promotion policy lead to better teaching?

No, according to teacher interviews and student surveys.

In surveys, teachers reported that they modified their instruction to help kids meet the promotion standards. Eighth-grade teachers taught more 8th-grade level math than they had before the policy—previously they had spent more time reviewing lower-level skills. They also increased the amount of time spent on reading comprehension.

Teachers at all promotion gate grades substantially increased the amount of time they spent on test preparation.

However, in interviews, teachers seldom reported changes in their teaching methods or indicated that they had pursued additional professional development in math and reading instruction.

Students surveyed in 2001 didn’t report feeling any more challenged by or engaged in their class work than did students surveyed in 1994.

Did the promotion policy lead to higher student achievement?

Maybe.

Since 1995, citywide performance on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills has risen 15 percentage points in reading—to 41 percent at or above national norms—and 19 percentage points in math—to 48 percent at or above national norms. Pass rates for students subject to the policy also increased.

Consortium researchers say a range of factors may have contributed to this progress, including summer school, after-school programs and a policy enacted in 1996 that placed schools with low test scores on academic probation.

They support this conclusion by noting that test scores have increased even for students who were not subject to the board’s promotion policy because of their special education or bilingual status.

Did the policy of retaining low-scoring students contribute to the decline in the high school dropout rate?

Maybe.

The Consortium calculated the chances that 13 year-olds would drop out by the time they turned 17. Students who were 13 in September 1994, before the policy was enacted, faced a 29 percent chance of dropping out by age 17. That percentage dropped to 25 percent for students who were 13 in September 1998.

This decline likely is due in part to the fact that students generally are entering high school with higher test scores. However, researchers cite other possible factors:

An increase in the number of courses needed to graduate. Taking a more challenging course load increased the number of credits students earned and kept them on track for graduation. Changing demographics. Students’ average economic status increased, which tends to lower dropout rates.

New magnet high schools. Selective schools attracted more high-achieving students.A probation policy. To avoid sanctions, schools needed to improve achievement.

A drop in the teen pregnancy rate, a national phenomenon.

Did any of the extra programs that were part of the promotion policy make a difference?

Yes.

Students in danger of retention who attended the board’s Summer Bridge program made modest gains in their math and reading test scores, and those gains were sustained through the next two school years. The students who were the furthest behind made the greatest gains, although most of those students were still retained.

The board’s after-school program for low-achieving students, which provided an extra hour of instruction in reading and math, produced small standardized test score gains, according to a forthcoming study that Roderick co-authored.

Researchers did not study two other programs for retained students. Those were the provision of extra teachers to reduce class size at high retention schools and the hiring of 500 retired teachers and 250 college students to tutor students who had been retained.

However, neither of these extra supports closed the achievement gap for retained kids. Even those who made strong test score gains during summer school continued, on average, to show meager progress during the school year.

While the six- to seven-week Summer Bridge program had a prescribed curriculum, the board did not give teachers who worked with retained students during the regular school year any strategies for diagnosing and addressing their problems, says Roderick. “Teachers didn’t know what to do.”

Did retained students get different instruction their second year in a grade?

It varied, according to a study of 22 6th- and 8th-graders who were retained in 1999-2000.

Most of the students simply repeated the same material in the same way, according to researcher Susan Stone of the University of California Berkley.

Teachers paid little or no special attention to the students’ social or academic issues, she says, and students complained that they learned nothing new. “Some kids got extremely frustrated and disengaged.”

Teachers were likewise frustrated, she reports. “Many said, ‘We’re not being given much support in figuring out what to do.'”

However, at a few schools in the study, teachers pooled their expertise and took a more systematic approach, says Stone. For example, they discussed specific problems their students had, such as paying attention, and talked about teaching strategies and homework assignments targeted at those difficulties.

Not surprisingly, students at these schools reported learning more and believed that repeating a year served a purpose.

Teachers at these schools also created a climate where retained students felt supported rather than stigmatized by their peers, Stone says.

At one school, a girl repeating 6th grade reported that when she finally met the promotion requirement, the whole class applauded and said that they knew she could do it.

“You’ll often see in the retention literature [that] all kids who get retained have a terrible experience self-esteem wise,” Stone remarks. “Our research shows it really depends on how the adults shape the experience for them.”

Years later, Stone found that the few 6th-graders with good experiences during the retention year were more likely to enter 8th grade near the promotion standard. The others were definitely still struggling, she says.