CPS weighs an end to student retention

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Cover of Catalyst issue on student retention, April 1998.

Cover of Catalyst issue on student retention, April 1998.

CPS officials are considering a startling overhaul of the district’s student promotion policy, limiting the use of retention for elementary school students or getting rid of it altogether.

In 1996, CPS won national headlines and an endorsement from then-President Bill Clinton for its program to end so-called “social promotion,” which it has quietly scaled back over the years.

District officials have been meeting with community groups to discuss two proposals: One would completely eliminate retention, although students who receive grades of “D” or below in reading or math would be referred to summer school. The second would severely limit the use of retention, and students could be held back only once in grades 1 to 8.

It’s unclear what role, if any, test scores would have in a new policy.

CPS officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a statement acknowledged that they are “evaluating potential improvements” to the policy and soliciting feedback from community members, teachers and school leaders.

“Upon conclusion of this community feedback process, CPS will then evaluate ways to improve the existing policy with a sole objective of improving outcomes for students,” according to the statement.

Under both CPS proposals, students who are lagging behind would get additional supports during the school year and still be required to go through summer school.

District officials discussed the proposed changes earlier this summer with members of the Hyde Park Community Action Council (CAC), which stressed its support for removing test scores from the promotion policy, according to a report in the Hyde Park Herald

It’s unclear when the proposals could reach the Board of Education for a vote, and CAC members say they were told that the district’s recent change in leadership has slowed the process. Still, a new policy could be in place by the 2016-2017 school year.

“Nothing is set in stone,” Tony Howard told the Hyde Park CAC, the Herald reported. Howard is the executive director of the CPS Office of Policy and Procedures, Education and Sports. “We want to have conversations about this before drafting anything.”

The original CPS retention policy set test score requirements for promotion after 3rd-, 6th-, and 8th– grades. In the first year of implementation, nearly 9,000 students were retained in grade. That number has since dropped by more than half, with just over 3,700 students in those benchmark grades retained last summer.

The policy was a signature initiative of the administration of former Mayor Richard M. Daley and former CPS CEO Paul Vallas, who adopted it despite consistent research showing that grade retention generally did not help the students academically and, in fact, made it more likely they would drop out.

In addition, retention fell disproportionately on the shoulders of black boys. (Catalyst has written extensively about the district’s promotion policy, notably in 2011 and in in 1998.)

Studies of the CPS experience by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research echoed the findings elsewhere. In their wake, the tough promotion policy started losing its teeth, and fewer and fewer students were held back.

Elaine Allensworth, the Lewis-Sebring director of the Consortium, says she’s not surprised CPS is rethinking its promotion policy.

“The biggest thing is: when students get held back, what are the consequences? Sometimes the short term can look good: Suddenly they’ve had an extra year, they may be older kids in the class, and are not as far behind,” she says. “But when they get to high school it becomes a big problem […] A lot of students are two years behind because they’ve been held back twice. And if you have to stay in high school until you’re 20, at that point it just gets weird.”

Because of the research, large urban school district across the country have been tweaking their promotion policies to include more than just test scores — and to allow more students to pass. For example, last year New York City school officials reduced the influence of test scores on grade promotion, which led to a sharp drop in the number of students being held back, according to Chalkbeat New York.

In Chicago, two years ago the district changed the test on which promotion decisions are based and lowered the cut scores necessary to pass without going to summer school. At the same time CPS gave students with good grades but low test scores the opportunity to skip summer school. As a result, summer school participation dropped 30 percent.

Most students who attend summer school are promoted at the end of it, according to CPS. And just 5 percent of students in benchmark grades  were retained last year.

One member of the Hyde Park CAC who sat through the CPS presentation on the proposed changes says he hope changes to the retention policy come with additional financial and teaching resources for schools to identify and support students who are falling behind.

“Once a child has fallen behind, there’s not a lot of options available to help them,” says Katie Gruber, a CAC member and parent of two students at Ray Elementary in Hyde Park. “I’m all in favor of using retention as a last resort. We need to absolutely explore every option of summer school and additional support … but to entirely remove it as an option seems hasty to me. I wish there were a lot more resources and more differentiated instruction available to kids.”

Margarita Vasquez, whose daughter was retained two years ago at an elementary school in Belmont Cragin, worries about the long-term impact of retention. Her daughter went to summer school last summer but did not meet the requirements to pass, and had to repeat 3rd grade last year.

“She tells me that all of her friends are now a year ahead of her, and it’s really hard on her,” says Vasquez, who wishes the promotion policy was less reliant on test scores. “Some students get very stressed out and forget everything when it comes time to take the test.”

  • Concerned Parent

    When CPS releases what the principal survey results are, if they release it; the questions were crafted to get the answers they wanted, not what principals truly felt about promotion.

    And why bother to ask 3-6-8th grade teachers about this?

    CPS wants to save money vs. supporting students. CPS claims these students will get support during the school year. Not with 34 in a classroom and per-pupil budgeting. That will never happen.

    Summer school was the best; accountable program to support students who are so very very far behind. A score of 23 and an F – come on!

    No wonder why CPS and networks are pushing a 10 point grading scale and forcing teachers to not give any 0/zero grades and to give a 50% instead.

    Also, principals have no say when students who are being retained, appeal. Principals are NOT allowed input on any appeal of retention. Unbelievable! There is a simple solution right there.

    • Christopher Ball

      The argument against 0 grading is that it 1) prevents much improvement of a quarter grade, and 2) discourages a struggling student. Re #1, consider two students who have to complete ten equally weighted assignments in a quarter. One student gets an 80 on all ten, so gets an 80. Another students gets a 90 on nine of them but a 0 on one. His quarter average would be 81. If he got 50% instead of a 0, it would be 86. Which would be more informative about the student’s actual achievement?

      • Concerned Parent

        CPS should allow for a missing grade or an incomplete in the gradebook rather than a 50%.
        For your example of the student who gets the 0 – there should be no reduction for that? On a 10 point scale the student still gets a B – so no loss and just as informative.
        What then prevents a student, like your example, of just blowing off a test or project?

        • Christopher Ball

          Consider the same 10 equal-weight assignments. Now a student gets a genuine 0, 20, 50, and then 7 scores of 70. That averages to 56; the student fails, even though he had begun to improve. At the sixth 70, it is impossible to reach an average grade of 60 unless one can score above 100. Failure is locked in, absent the type of alternative or remedial work that xian mentions above. What’s the point of completing the last assignment then?

          A series of 50s still results in failure, so a student who blew off too much work would still fail.

      • xian

        If CPS wants to address the impact of missing work, I’d be happy to help. I manage to fail pretty much zero students a year based on an assortment of vigorous alternative assessments, remediation and self-designed assignments.

        I think we can design things well enough that every student learns and every student passes.

        But sticking to a nonsensical grading scale and then tweaking it by lying on the principles of mathematics seems like a poor way to handle it. Students get what’s happening, and some schools are telling teachers to simply not tell students about the policy.

        • Christopher Ball

          Alternative and remedial assignments would solve the problem, but it does create more work for the teacher to develop them.

  • Christopher Ball

    An overhaul of this policy is long overdue. First, it has failed. Students who were held back just dropped out at higher rates than others. Second, more attention should be paid to students mid-year performance and action taken then to prevent failing the course. Third, the dual veto is a problem. The test score — against the recommendations of all professional statistical organizations — serves to veto a student’s promotion even if grades are good but does not serve to enable promotion if grades are bad. Fourth, no one at CPS can explain why the cut score for the tests are set where they are at. I have asked CPS officials several times and no one knows how it was originally set or why. Fifth, CPS never developed a test designed to gauge promotion readiness because, as the accountability chief at the time, Philip Hansen, told a National Research Council committee, it didn’t want to change the test because it might lose credibility in the media and public by doing so. That was in the late 1990s. 15 years later we still don’t have a test designed to assess what they purportedly want to assess.

  • Susan

    Summer school is a good idea as long as it is academically rigorous. Too often that is not the case. Summer school cannot be the only solution for struggling students. I don’t hear CPS talking about a robust system wide RtI program. That would capture students as they are starting to fall behind academically and offer interventions during the entire school year. I see far too many students who are in high school and read at a fifth grade level. They pretty much end up graduating that way.

    • Concerned Parent

      RtI or MTSS whatever CPS calls it – there is no money for it so it cannot be done. You will see more students with lower levels as schools are being placed on a 10 on a scale and given a 50% for doing nothing or 0 work or a 0 score.

      • Susan

        I think it can be done if CPS mandates it. Principals control how they spend their money. I worked at a school that used to send a few favored teachers to NYC for several weeks every summer to get training that was never shared with anyone. They said it was too complicated for the rest of us. The air fare, hotel rooms, meals, training fees, etc. had to have cost a lot. That is an example of money that could have been used for an RtI program.

        • Concerned Parent

          Principals do not really control how they spend their money. Network chiefs and numerous CPS mandates assure that principals do not have control. The trip to NYC more likely was based on a grant that had to be spent within those parameters. Get the facts of where the money came from and costs first. If the training is not being shared, and if that is fact, then that should be brought to the LSC teacher reps’ attention.

        • Northside

          I don’t care if it was a grant or school money. Principals are pretty good at sugar coating their acts of favoritism. I find that these trips to New York are just an example of how elitist education has become. Schools now seem to focus on a few young teachers and send them to these Teachers College Lucy Caulkin seminars.As if CPS doesn’t have a lot of its own good ideas!

          Now instead of paying Textbook companies, we now put the money in the pockets of people like lucy caulkins who are treated like “Gods” of education. I don’t know if it was her intention, but her books have become like the Bible for many schools. Teachers are fed this idea that they are given new “freedoms” to teach their student, but now they are locked into a system that doesn’t always work. Calkins has great ideas, but somehow using her work means no more spelling words, or grammer books. I don’t know if it is a good idea. We need to keep trying new things. But not always throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I just feel like education has become so snobby. Maybe because I am a simpleton? I don’t know..but I have noticed CPS has gone from buffoon to pseudo Experts who can really be snobs! Sorry…that’ my opinion. So much in education now is meant purely to impress…yet we never ask the question “does it work for the children and the teachers” but rather we do it to impress area officers!

          • Susan

            Yes, it was a Lucy Calkins seminar in New York that I was referring to. The last time I did research I could not find any peer reviewed data that showed Lucy Calkin’s methods have been shown to be effective. She, like Charlotte Daniels, are extraordinary at self-promotion, with nothing empirical behind their methods. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…”

          • Northside

            hahah…thank you . Making fun of Lucy Calkins in my school is like a Communist in the Soviet Union making fun of Karl Marx. It is a capital offence!