Kill student retention and get real about learning

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It’s a practice that just won’t die.

Study after study, researcher after researcher, has made the same point: Holding students back when they are not achieving at grade level does not help them academically.

Still, the idea resonates with the public. And outgoing Mayor Richard M. Daley garnered praise for instituting a ban on social promotion in 1996.

Now, like an aging, punch-drunk prizefighter who just won’t give up and leave the ring, the district’s promotion policy remains alive, if not well.

True, the policy has been watered down in the past 15 years because of outside pressure, including a major 2004 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research that definitively showed the dramatic negative effects of retention—in particular, the far greater risk of eventually dropping out. More recently, the advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education put the issue on the front burner when it filed a federal civil rights complaint against the district’s retention policy because of its disparate racial impact.

The story of a 6th-grader from Black Magnet Elementary, illustrates how the policy can be easily misused. The boy was sent to summer school because of low test scores in math. Over the summer, he did well and passed math. But he failed reading—a subject in which he had previously earned good test scores and grades—because he got several zeros on class tests. Why? For talking. Now he’s repeating 6th grade.

The year after Daley’s policy was put in place, 21,429 students were held back. This year, the number is down sharply to 4,776 students. Still, that’s nearly 5,000 students who, like the Black Magnet 6th grader, are enduring the stigma of ‘flunking.’  That’s almost 5,000 children who are getting hit-and-miss help, since the extras schools once got to help retained students have fallen victim to budget cuts.  And sadly, that’s nearly 5,000 students who are now more likely to give up on school altogether down the road.

On the flip side, as this issue of Catalyst In Depth notes, the get-tough stance still resonates in some quarters. At a January forum on education at Kennedy-King College, speaker after speaker railed against passing students without making sure they have the skills for the next grade. These speakers make a critical point: It does a child no good to simply pass him or her to the next grade and continue to conduct “business as usual” in the classroom.

Doing so is, in effect, lying to children and parents about their education.

Incoming Mayor Rahm Emanuel has vowed to lengthen the school day and year in Chicago. He’s said he doesn’t want a debate on how to pay for the extra time, but what to do with it.

Here’s a suggestion: Devote a portion of that time to mandatory tutoring, in very small groups of maybe five or six—or even one-on-one, if needed—for youngsters who are in danger of being held back. The tutoring could be done by aspiring teachers from local schools of education—there are plenty of education programs in Chicago, and most are looking for new ways to train their students—under the supervision of classroom teachers.

The proposal would accomplish two goals: helping students, and giving prospective teachers some much-needed real world experience.

Retained students aren’t the only children who are failing. For one, the Illinois Standards Achievement Test has been watered down in recent years, and the state’s learning standards are widely considered weak. National and international measures clearly indicate that many kids are not receiving a high-quality education, even if they aren’t in danger of being held back.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the audience at a recent luncheon in Chicago that he has begun to pay more attention to international data on achievement. This year, the U.S. will be among more than 60 countries participating in the 2011 TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study).

The National Center for Education Statistics plans to link state scores on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) to TIMSS results, to give state education officials a reliable barometer to compare their students’ performance to international benchmarks.

This year’s round of international tests will provide a much-needed update on where U.S. students stand in comparison to students elsewhere: TIMSS was last administered in 2007 and PIRLS in 2006. Previous results on these tests, and on PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), show that American students typically score around the middle of the pack among participating countries.

With the U.S. only at the middle of the pack, and Chicago performing below average compared to the U.S. (even among other urban districts), it’s easy to see that we’re socially promoting many students—and leaving them completely unprepared for high school, post-secondary education and a 21st Century world where analytical skills are of critical importance.

In effect, we’re lying to these children, too,  about the quality of their education.