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Chicago Data Show Mixed Summer Gain

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Chicago officials are hailing their mandatory summer school program as an unequivocal success, but a closer look suggests a less glowing picture than the one the school district has put forward.

By the district's accounting, the system's roughly $34 million investment in its high-profile "summer bridge program" paid off handsomely. More than 15,000 students avoided repeating a grade and thousands more boosted their test scores substantially.

"It's been a tremendous summer," said Blondean Davis, the district's chief of schools and regions. "It's absolutely a great success." The program, part of a campaign to stop pushing unprepared students on to the next grade, drew national publicity this summer as evidence of a tough new approach by the district's popular leadership.

But as school leaders prepare to expand the summer classes next year, district data suggest that the program's contributions may have been overstated. Viewed from one perspective, nearly two-thirds of the more than 40,000 students required to attend because of low test scores had still failed to make the grade by summer's end.

"This summer school is great, but it didn't solve the problem," said G. Alfred Hess, a research professor at the school of education and social policy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "It's a major step toward solving the problem, but the problem still is large."

Program Focused on Scores

This past summer, the 424,000-student district required students with inadequate test scores, excessive absences, or failing grades in math or reading to attend intensive remedial classes for either six or seven weeks. ("Do or Die," Aug. 6, 1997.)

The classes started last year for 8th graders only and were extended this year to grades 3, 6, and 9. District officials say that as many as 47,000 students were enrolled in the bridge program at some point over the summer.

Nearly 41,000 students qualified for the mandatory program because their scores last spring on either the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills or the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency fell below cutoff points set by the district. To avoid being retained in the same grade, students needed to meet those original targets on the August retests, although the district granted waivers for some students with scores close to the cutoffs.

Summer School Scorecard

The Chicago district required nearly 41,000 students with low test scores to attend summer school. Most who failed to show enough improvement in August were required to repeat their grade.

Total
  • Students required to attend based on spring scores.
40,949
  • Number of those students who were retested in August.
31,715
  • Students who passed for the first time in August.
14,491
  • Passing rate for retested students who had failed in the spring.
45.7%
  • Students who passed in August as a percentage of all students who failed in the spring.
35.4%
SOURCE: Chicago Public Schools.

Fewer than 32,000 of the original 41,000 in the four grades took a second stab at the tests last month, a preliminary district report shows.

Officials said they were not sure how to account for the 9,000-student discrepancy. They suggested that the missing students may have played hooky from summer school, skipped the retests, or dropped out altogether.

Of the 31,715 students with failing spring scores who were retested in August, 14,491 reached the threshold, for a passing rate of 45.7 percent, district data show.

That number, however, represents just 35 percent of all the students with substandard spring scores for whom summer school was supposed to offer a second chance at success.

"The results are mixed," said Pamelyn Massarsky, the recording secretary of the Chicago Teachers Union. "However, we believe that this is a start of a new era in which students will know what is expected of them and will live up to everybody's expectations."

But some administration critics consider such predictions premature, given a lack of detailed information about the results.

"We would like to see an independent evaluation," said Donald Moore, the executive director of the Chicago-based reform group Designs for Change. "It's particularly important, since Chicago is being looked at as a model, that these things are carefully evaluated."

Detailed Lessons

The most ambitious summer school initiative of its kind in the nation, Chicago's bridge program is a central element of the effort to jump-start achievement in the nation's third-largest district.

Many in the city see such a bid as long overdue, pointing to the crippling effects of letting students advance through the grades despite a lack of needed skills. At the same time, many experts predict that holding back large numbers of students will simply worsen the district's already serious dropout problem.

Hoping to avoid such an outcome, district officials have launched a series of programs--including summer school, after-school tutoring, and regional remedial centers--to help floundering students.

Next summer, district officials intend to extend the mandatory bridge program to the 1st grade. Students will qualify based on their performance on the Iowa tests and teacher recommendations. But unlike students in the other grades, they will not be forced to repeat 1st grade if their scores still fall short at the end of the summer.

For these and other reasons, district officials have a strong interest in making the summer program work--and making sure that it is seen as working.

Against this backdrop, the district released the results of its August retesting in stages, starting with 3rd, 6th, and 8th graders, who took the retests a week earlier than 9th graders.

District Hails Triumph

In a press release titled "Summer Bridge Program Triumphs," the district reported that 44 percent of 3rd graders, 57 percent of 6th graders, and an estimated 65 percent of 8th graders posted passing scores. Officials later amended the 8th grade figure to 62 percent.

"These results prove that hard work and summer school pays off," Mayor Richard M. Daley, who appointed the district's school board, said in the statement. "It shows that every child can learn, we just need to work with every child."

The day after their initial announcement, officials issued another, headlined "Eighth Graders Master Promotion Criteria," stressing that nearly 92 percent of all the district's 8th graders had met the cutoff scores by the summer's end--79 percent of them in the spring and an additional 13 percent in August.

Similar figures were offered for 3rd and 6th grades. The actual promotion rates later rose, as a result of 2,159 waivers the district granted to students in grades 3, 6, and 8 who almost reached the cutoffs.

"The summer success is largely attributed to high standards, high expectations, accountability, and a structured curriculum which obviously has resulted in outstanding improvements in the number of students meeting our promotional criteria," Gery Chico, the president of the board of trustees, said in the statement.

'A First Step'

What the releases did not point out was that, according to district data, just 42 percent of the 3rd, 6th, and 8th graders required to attend summer school because of substandard spring test scores wound up with passing grades by August.

Last month, the district followed up its 3rd, 6th, and 8th grade results with a statement announcing that 9th graders had "performed phenomenally well in the summer bridge program."

The statement omitted any mention of the numbers or percentages of 9th graders who boosted their scores to district minimums, instead focusing on the improvement in average scores.

According to the district, the average reading score of the 9th graders retested in August jumped to nearly 7.8--the equivalent of the eighth month of 7th grade, or about two years below national norms--from only 6.3 in the spring. In math, the average rose from 6.7 to 8.0, the district said.

Based on the spring test, nearly 14,300 9th graders were required to attend summer school. In August, about 9,300 of them took the retest, and 40 percent of those students passed.

The roughly 3,700 freshmen who passed in August represent only a quarter of those who failed in the spring.

Ms. Davis, the district administrator in charge of the summer program, said "the real story" in the results was the growth in student scores among those who attended. Besides the 9th grade jumps, she cited rates of improvement in other grades that ranged from a low of four months in 3rd grade reading to nearly a full school year in 8th grade reading.

"We only expected growth of two to four months," she said. "We far exceeded that."

Mr. Hess, a longtime reform proponent and adviser to district Chief Executive Officer Paul G. Vallas, agreed that the improvement rates were encouraging.

"As a first step, that's pretty commendable," Mr. Hess said. "It gets these kids a lot closer to where they needed to be. As a final result, though, it still leaves a long way to go."

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