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Published in Print: September 6, 2000, as Bumper Summer School Crop Yields Mixed Test Results

Bumper Summer School Crop Yields Mixed Test Results

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As summer school wound down in recent weeks, districts reported mixed results from unprecedented efforts to squeeze more instruction into the calendar.

Chicago claimed a record-high promotion rate for its summer students. But New Orleans saw hundreds of struggling 8th graders ignore summer school or fail to benefit enough from it to go on to 9th grade.

If a general trend stood out, it was the continuing growth of such programs, especially in big-city districts. As long as schools continue to crack down on social promotion—the practice of advancing students by age rather than academic readiness—it seems that classrooms will be as crowded as swimming pools in the summer. ("More Districts Add Summer Coursework," June 7, 2000.)

"Summer school, more and more, will be viewed as an integral part of services schools provide, rather than something they add on," said Harris Cooper, the chairman of the department of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who studies the programs. "It's time for us to establish stable and reliable sources of funding for summer school."

The largest program was in New York City, where a third of the 1 million public school students were enrolled. As a condition of moving to the next grade, 200,000 students were told to attend summer classes, while 100,000 enrolled for voluntary enrichment programs.

To make the program work, New York recruited 16,000 teachers, installed hundreds of school air-conditioning units, provided transportation, and sent teachers to homes to meet with parents.

But, to the dismay of Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy, the attendance rate midway through the summer was 77 percent at the primary level and just 55 percent for high schoolers, among those who had to attend to avoid failing a grade. Mr. Levy is now lobbying state lawmakers to make summer attendance compulsory for such students.

By summer's end, the news in New York City had improved: Sixty-three percent of the students who showed up for summer school were promoted to the next grade, and 33 percent were held back. Final promotion decisions for the remaining four percent were still being reported late last month.

"The results are OK. They're better than last year," said Sara Schwabacher, the acting president of New Visions for Public Schools, a local nonprofit organization that promotes school improvement. "But the expectation that you are going to make up a year's worth of work is not realistic."

Record Promotions

The Chicago schools, meanwhile, boasted their best promotion rate for summer school students since the district began requiring failing students in 3rd, 6th, and 8th grades to attend such classes.

According to the district, 83 percent of the 9,722 Chicago 3rd graders required to attend had met promotion criteria by the end of the summer—nearly double the rate for that grade in each of the past three years. Chicago, which has 431,000 students, reported summer school promotion rates of 75 percent and 71 percent for the rising 6th and 8th graders, respectively.

Overall, no more than 10 percent of all the students in those grades were held back.

Officials said it was the lowest rate in years. They credited changes that gave more weight to students' classroom performance and to teachers' input, rather than test scores alone.

But some Chicago observers are skeptical of the new promotion numbers.

"We believe that many children were able to be promoted with low test scores," said Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of the local advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education. "Parents have no idea about the criteria on which these decisions were made."

New Orleans, meanwhile, had little good news to report, as summer school failed to help hundreds of students pass a retest of the state exams required for the first time for advancement to 9th grade.

Of the 1,416 students who took the language arts retest following four weeks of study, 80 percent, or 1,222, failed. And 86 percent of the 2,819 students who retook the math test also failed.

Officials of the 83,000-student system were unable to provide attendance data. According to local media reports, however, hundreds of 8th graders who failed to pass at least one of the exams on their first try did not attend summer school at all.

Una Anderson, a New Orleans school board member, said she was pleased that 75 percent of the students who attended summer school improved their test scores, even if they fell short of the passing marks.

"For those who did not attend, I'm extremely disappointed," she said. It shows the lack of parent involvement that we face."

Some districts experimented with new ways of attracting and keeping summer school students.

In Rochester, N.H., 20 students were paid $6 an hour to attend classes as part of a program for students who were deemed at risk of dropping out. All of the students finished the 80-hour program. But the idea of paying students to go to school raised eyebrows in the district, which charges some students a fee to attend.

"We might make a slight modification next year," said Michael Hopkins, the assistant superintendent of the 4,500-student district.

Online Courses

In central Virginia's Albemarle County schools, two dozen students took the first online summer courses to be offered by the 13,000-student district. The district lent the students computers, and the local Nexet communications company provided free Internet access.

"It was a tremendous amount of work for the teacher," said Bruce Benson, the district's technology director. "But if education is moving to learning anytime, anywhere, then this provides flexibility you can't provide any other way."

Hoping to raise attendance, the 30,000-student Kansas City, Kan., schools held a "Jump Start" literacy program at the end of the summer, rather than right after the regular year ended.

"Kids and teachers are so burned out by the end of the year that we had a low turnout when we started summer school right away," said Laurie Leiker, the director of Jump Start.

The three-week program provided meals and transportation for nearly 400 students. It enjoyed a roughly 75 percent attendance rate, compared with 50 percent for traditional summer programs.

While praising such efforts, Mr. Cooper of the University of Missouri suggested targeting summer school to all school-age children in a family, rather than those in academic need.

And Geoffrey Borman, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, cautioned against one-time summer efforts to prepare students for high-stakes tests.

"What I'm hoping for is to see more summer school programs designed specifically to avoid summer learning loss," Mr. Borman said. "It seems that some of today's programs are too little, too late."

Vol. 20, Issue 1, Page 10

Web Resources
  • In "On the Trail of Truants, and Their Social Problems," Aug. 9, 2000, The New York Times, writer Lynette Holloway tells how more than 130,000 students skipped classes in New York City's summer school program. This summer, she says, 144 attendance teachers worked to track down the absentees. (Requires free registration)
  • View a timeline mapping the development of Chicago's social promotion and summer school policies from the Catalyst, a Chicago-based education reform magazine.
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