New numbers confirm good, bad of promotion policy

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Illustration by Jim Flynn

Illustration by Jim Flynn

In December, the Consortium on Chicago School Research released the first independent study of Chicago’s nationally watched policy to end social promotion. It contained a mix of good and bad news, with the bad echoing decades of previous research: Holding kids back doesn’t help them academically.

At the time, CPS maintained that the negative finding was premature because it encompassed only students retained in 1997. Additional help provided to students retained in 1998 likely improved the outcomes, the district argued. However, updated results supplied last month to Catalyst confirm the original findings. Retained students aren’t doing any better or worse than similar students who were socially promoted before the policy went into effect.

The Consortium’s update, which adds data from the 1998-99 school year, also reinforces the good news in the first study: The percentage of 6th- and 8th-graders hitting promotion targets during the regular school year continues to increase. In addition, the update shows that the percentage of 3rd-graders who hit the targets during the regular school year has begun to rise.

At all three benchmark grades, students who fall short during the regular school year continue to make substantial gains during the Summer Bridge program. Sixth-graders who tested into 7th grade at the end of the Summer Bridge program in 1997 sustained their gains for two school years, the updated study found.

“It is very clear that we’ve got more kids meeting the standards,” says Melissa Roderick of the University of Chicago, the study’s principal researcher. “The question is would they learn as much if the threat of retention wasn’t there?”

Students by and large say the threat motivates them to work harder, reports Roderick, who is interviewing 6th- and 8th-graders for a follow-up study.

The policy puts pressure on parents, too, Roderick believes. For instance, some families in her study canceled trips to Mexico so their 8th-graders could attend summer school and earn promotion to high school.

She even wonders whether the School Board would pour as much money into after-school programs, Summer Bridge and other supports for low-achieving students if it didn’t have this policy to spur it on. Those extra resources are a major reason for the test score increase, she believes.

Can’t see alternative

“There’s got to be a way that we could get these benefits without the threat of retention,” Roderick says. “[But] I haven’t come up with one yet.”

This is not the first time Roderick’s research has pulled her thinking in different directions on the pros and cons of retention. A substantial body of research, including her own, finds that retained students are more likely to drop out than similarly low-achieving students who are socially promoted. On the other hand, “I can point to another study I did and say, if you send a child to high school reading and doing math two years below grade level, he’s gone by the end of the first year.”

“Social promotion is a disaster. Grade retention is not good,” she says. “I don’t have the answer about whether they should keep this policy.”

To others, the implications of the Consortium study are more clear-cut.

Chief Education Officer Cozette Buckney finds the study “positive, encouraging, very supportive of our program.”

The tradeoff

The unsatisfactory progress of retained students is no reason to drop the policy, she says. “That’s like saying a child didn’t meet curfew so you drop the curfew. Rather than drop the goal, we want to keep trying to find out why the goal is not being met.”

G. Alfred Hess, Jr. of Northwestern University also says the report validates the policy: “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.” The Consortium study upheld that theory, he says.

“The tradeoff is between a few kids who might dropout anyway and a great number of students who do better throughout school as a result of the policy,” he adds.

Hess says that by keeping the lowest-scoring students out of high school, those who want to excel there confront less negative peer pressure. In a recent survey, he found high school teachers generally reporting a student culture that is more oriented toward academics than in the past. “As one award-winning biology teacher in a reconstituted high school told us, ‘It’s cool to learn now,'” he says.

Hess favors the current retention policy over one that Chicago pursued in the 1980s because it provides extra help to retained students. Still, he acknowledges “a huge problem for the kids who are retained. We have to try and solve that problem.”

‘Tenuous’ ethics

Donald Moore, executive director of the research and advocacy group Designs for Change, challenges the idea that it’s OK to retain 10,000 students each year—at no benefit to themselves—in order to motivate other students. “That’s a very tenuous ethical position,” he says.

He also finds that, contrary to popular belief, the number of students retained is not substantially less than the increase in the number hitting test score cutoffs.

Furthermore, he says there are no hard data to support the theory that retention is the engine for Chicago’s rising test scores. He notes that the Consortium report itself cites other possible reasons, including an improvement in test-taking skills, changes in instructional programs, the School Board’s after-school “Lighthouse” program, a general upward trend in test scores across the system, and that students are simply taking the tests more seriously.

Moore adds another possibility: repeated use of the same forms of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS), which determines elementary school promotion.

Central office rotates three forms of the ITBS, and low-scoring students in the benchmark grades are tested up to three times over an eight-month period: at the end of the regular school year in May, at the end of the Summer Bridge program in August, and again in January if they are retained.

“Teachers are getting increasingly familiar with these tests,” says Moore, referring to research that finds an upward drift in test scores with repeated use of an identical standardized test, and a drop when a different test covering the same subject matter is introduced.

Money spent on an extra year of schooling for retained students would be better spent on preventing low achievement, Moore feels. He would direct funds toward expanding programs such as preschool, whole-school improvement, professional development and extra supports for low-achievers.

Moore was joined in December by Gary Orfield of Harvard University, Robert Hauser of the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Ernest House of the University of Colorado in calling for an immediate end to Chicago’s promotion policy.

Roderick agrees that repeated use of the tests at grades 3, 6, and 8 has somewhat inflated test scores, but she insists that some of the gain also is authentic. Otherwise, students would lose their gains when tested at a new grade level, which they don’t, she says.

Summer Bridge has contributed to much of the test score improvement, she adds, with strategies research has proven to accelerate learning, such as small class size and concentrated time-on-task.

Best use of money?

“I don’t think we should fight about the short-term gains,” she says. “I think they’re real. I think we should ask, Are these short-term gains going to mean something in the long run?”

Roderick says her main concern is the instructional costs of the promotion policy. For instance, 86 percent of 8th-graders are now clearing the promotion hurdle. “That is a very, very high pass rate. To get to that passing rate, we’ve got 8th-graders spending their entire year working on their basic skills. We interview 8th-graders who spend all day doing reading and math. No science. No social studies.”

She also questions whether the policy is financially feasible over the long haul. This year, the board has budgeted $86.1 million for after-school instruction in Lighthouse, Summer Bridge, supports for retained students and “academic preparatory centers” for older 8th-graders who haven’t earned promotion to high school. To sustain test score gains, those programs need to be funded yearly, she notes.

In contrast, money spent on professional development for teachers lives on, she says. “If I teach a teacher how to teach reading, when the recession happens and I don’t have money anymore, she doesn’t forget how to teach reading.”

One positive outcome of the policy, she notes, is that it has shrunk the pool of hard-core low-achievers by siphoning off kids who could succeed with added pressure to work hard and those who needed catch-up time in summer school, a smaller class size or tutoring. What’s left is a small group of kids with serious problems. She finds the board’s response to that group as too one-size-fits-all.

For example, she says, retired teachers hired as tutors may be more familiar with whole-class instruction, and unable to diagnose and remedy specific reading difficulties.

The poor outcome for retained students, in spite of extra supports, suggests to her that they may need more specialized intervention.

Roderick likens the board’s approach to trying to quiet a room full of coughing children with a bottle of cough medicine. For most of them, the remedy works because they only had the flu. “So what we’ve got left is the kids with asthma and bronchitis and walking pneumonia. And instead of bringing in an expert to see what they’ve got, we just keep giving them cough medicine.”

Helping retained students who likely suffer from a variety of individual learning, social and emotional problems may require a “technical team” with a range of expertise, she says.

More important, she believes the system needs to identify the most at-risk students before they hit 3rd grade.

The board’s newest plans to cut retention include mandatory summer school for below-level 1st- and 2nd-graders and computerized phonics programs that target a specific learning disability. The board also is training the tutors and extra teachers who work with retained students in alternative strategies for teaching reading.

Buckney says that all support programs now in place—Bridge, Light-house, and so forth—are sustainable, and have been factored into a four-year financial plan. The board will continue to initiate new programs, particularly for retained students, and invites suggestions, she adds. “We’re always open for ideas.”

Roderick cautions that central office shouldn’t be blamed for not having instant solutions for the problems of retained students. “This is a group of messy kids … that have been here a long time. It’s going to take awhile.”