Tougher test may lead to more retention, despite relaxed promotion policy

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As CPS moves toward implementing tougher academic standards and assessments, district leaders plan to adjust the promotion policy and allow some students who score low on the new standardized test to be sent to the next grade.

But they may be taking this step to prevent a huge influx of students in summer school and in danger of being held back. 

On one hand, it seems like CPS officials are attempting to relax the policy. Currently, all students who scored below the 24th percentile on certain sections of the ISAT had to go to summer school and pass an exam to be promoted. Under the proposed policy, students who score between the 10th and 23rd percentiles on the test called the NWEA, and get good grades, will be promoted without going to summer school.

But because the new test is harder, more students may wind up vulnerable to being retained. Students who score very poorly on the NWEA, beneath the 10th percentile, will have to go to summer school and pass a test, regardless of their grades. Based on previous NWEA performance, CPS suspects that about 7,200 students will be in this category.

However, though the percentile was higher, about 4,600 students scored below the 24th percentile on the nationally-normed section of the ISAT.

Also, students who get a D or F in reading and math, regardless of their test performance, will have to complete summer school.

The Board of Education will consider the new policy at the October board meeting. The promotion policy applies only the 3rd, 6th and 8th-grade students.

CPS’ once-tough promotion policy has been weakened since former Mayor Richard M. Daley announced it in 1996 as a way to eliminate social promotion. In the first years, some 15 percent of students were held back. But as research began to show the harmful effects of retention, CPS adjusted the policy to make it easier to get through to the next grade.  This year, only 3.6 percent of students were retained.

Yet a fair number of students—about 17 percent of 79,000 students —were required to attend summer school, though 80 percent of those students were promoted afterward. 

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said she still doesn’t believe in social promotion, but added that she doesn’t think that it would be fair to hold students to the same standards on a tougher test while teachers are still adjusting lessons to incorporate the more rigorous academics.

Annette Gurley, head of teaching and learning for CPS, said the NWEA is aligned with the new Common Core standards that emphasize higher-level skills like problem-solving and citing evidence when answering questions. So getting to the 24th percentile of the NWEA is tougher than it would be on the SAT10, the section of the ISAT that was used under the existing promotion policy.

Gurley said teachers will get professional development to adjust their lessons. “We are making sure we are not raising the bar before we give them supports. This is a transition year.” 

Gurley and Byrd-Bennett emphasized that they are pushing schools to provide support for students who are struggling, rather than focus on who should be held back. Byrd-Bennett said the district is in the process of revamping summer school so that students get more individualized lessons, some of them through online learning.

Also, they said that schools are being told to build time for acceleration and remediation into the longer school day implemented last year. Though some principals and parents have complained that deep budget cuts forced them to cut academic coaches, Byrd-Bennett said no one has approached her voicing that concern.