Summer School: Amid Successes, Concerns Persist

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The race to adopt summer school programs continued this year, with more districts than ever requiring struggling students to give up part of their vacations in hopes of lifting their test scores enough to avoid repeating a grade.

In all, tens of thousands of students were enrolled in what has become virtually a nationwide effort to end the automatic promotion of students who aren't ready for the next grade. But research on the effectiveness of the programs--which vary widely in curriculum, class size, and educational approach--remains mixed. And some experts question the merits of what the programs are accomplishing.

Meanwhile, widely publicized and embarrassing problems with summer school in New York City and Oakland, Calif., raised caution flags about adopting too quickly or failing to explain fully a policy that has such far-reaching implications for a child's education.

"There's a lot of potential in summer school," said Lorrie A. Shepard, a professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "There's also a lot of potential for mischief. In a lot of the programs I've seen, the children are horribly bored. Teachers are at the chalkboard working on test questions. That's horrible."

Much of the criticism focuses on what some experts see as an overemphasis on a specific test. And some of those experts see the glass as half-empty: While thousands of students have raised their test scores and moved on to the next grade, many thousands of others have not.

"It's a desperate fad [and] a waste of resources," said Gary A. Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University. "It's just a very simple-minded addition to a poorly designed system of instruction and assessment."

Yet many districts say their programs are succeeding. From Chicago to the District of Columbia to Waco, Texas, administrators say that test scores for summer school attendees are up, and that thousands of students at risk of failure are catching up to their peers and entering the next grade.

Two University of Chicago professors, Anthony S. Bryk and Melissa Roderick, are completing a three-year study of that city's promotion policies that confirms that test scores for students in summer school have risen substantially.

"It's certainly an accelerated academic experience in reading and math for the majority of kids" required to attend, Mr. Bryk said. "We're beginning to look more closely at issues related to the program's quality, [but] it looks like there's a strong instructional effect: Principals are selecting good teachers for summer school, schools are provided good instructional resources, and there are relatively small class sizes."

Intervention Often Required

The resurgent popularity of summer school has been sparked by new laws designed to help struggling students and end the practice of promoting them whether they're ready or not--what is often called social promotion. In 1997, Chicago was the first large district to require summer classes for its lowest-achieving students, and widespread coverage of gains in test scores there led many other big-city districts to follow suit.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia now link promotion to performance on state exams or other criteria, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. And 13 of those states also require some form of intervention, such as summer school, for students at risk of failing.

This past summer, about half the nation's big-city systems offered remedial summer school, and in many of them attendance was mandatory, according to the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based organization of urban districts.

In Chicago, students who fail to meet a prescribed cutoff on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, as well as those with failing grades or excessive absences, must either attend the district's "Summer Bridge" program or automatically repeat the grade.

District leaders say that with each year of the program, more and more 3rd, 6th, and 8th graders are advancing. This year, for example, the number of students in the 430,000-student district being retained dropped by about 1,200 from last year, to 10,371, officials say.

Houston reports similar gains. Only 5,700 of the 57,000 students in grades 1-3 who attended summer school failed to meet district standards and were held back this fall.

The city's program comes three years before a Texas law passed this year kicks in that will require 3rd graders to meet minimum scores on state exams to be promoted.

"We looked at each grade level and identified areas of individual difficulty," said Susan Sclafani, the Houston district's chief of staff for educational services. "We developed specific intervention and curriculum for teachers."


Such successes have been somewhat offset by problems in other areas. This month, New York City announced that 21,000 of the 35,000 students required to take summer school did not advance from 3rd, 6th, or 8th grade. While 7,000 students were retained because they failed an end-of-summer test, the district said some 14,000 were held back because they failed to show up for summer school or for the exams.

Schools Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew underscored his get-tough commitment to summer school at a press briefing earlier this month: "If you fail to go, if you take and ultimately do not pass the test, you will be held back."

Not surprisingly, his announcement led to fierce debate over the merits of the program. Adding to the discord was the revelation last week that errors by the testing company meant that nearly 8,700 students were mistakenly assigned to summer school. About 3,500 of those students were unfairly held back, officials said.

In Oakland, too, missteps led to confusion and anger at summer's end, when it was revealed that only about half of the 17,000 students expected in the program actually showed up. But while New York administrators leaned toward retention, few of Oakland's no-shows were held back.

Though letters to parents in the spring characterized the program as "mandated," officials of the California district now say that students were not required to attend at all.

Sue Piper, a spokeswoman for the 54,000-student system, said Oakland children couldn't be forced to attend because truancy laws do not apply to the summer months. She said the word "mandated" had been used by the district because the state had mandated that it offer the program.

Such murkiness made for a chaotic and embarrassing start of the school year, and Oakland leaders, including Mayor Jerry Brown, were not pleased. "This demonstrates a painful lack of clarity from the Oakland schools," said Stacey Wells, a spokeswoman for the Democratic mayor.

The New Haven schools were the first in Connecticut to require summer school, with a program for struggling 3rd grade readers. Of the 402 students sent to the five-week session, 256 were promoted. A law enacted this year will require schools designated as low-performing by the state to provide similar remediation programs later this school year.

Other districts are going beyond what their states require in an attempt to give students a better chance to catch up, especially in literacy.

Denver doubled the attendance in its mandatory, 19-day program this summer, to 3,466 children in grades 2-8. A district official estimated that between 600 and 700 students were held back based on their summer school attendance.

Skepticism Grows

While Mr. Bryk and other researchers find encouraging signs in such efforts to raise the performance of at-risk students, others caution that poorly designed or implemented programs may shortchange children.

"I would hope there is deep and meaningful instruction, especially for students who are at risk of not reading," Ms. Shepard said.

Harris M. Cooper, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, analyzed nearly 100 summer school programs for a soon-to-be published book on the subject.

Overall, he found that summer programs have a positive impact. But some--those that allowed more individualized attention, and that were locally designed, for example--worked better than others.

Other experts say high-stakes summer programs linked to tests are unfair because they hold students to a high standard but fail to provide the tools during the regular school year to meet them.

In New York City, the legal-advocacy group Advocates for Children has filed a lawsuit claiming that many students who failed that district's Citywide Test last spring had no way of knowing they were in danger of being held back. "Parents are up in arms," said Jill Chaifetz the group's executive director. "The majority of our clients were getting [good grades] all year and had no way of knowing they were at risk."

Program Design Crucial

Mr. Orfield of Harvard emphasized that summer school "is no substitute for having better overall instruction during the school year."

Like others, he said programs that rely on small classes, creative lessons, and individual attention--the sorts of features that often are not available during the regular school year-- are the best bet for summer learning.

Susan Davenport, the acting executive director of Designs for Change, a Chicago education group, agreed. "A well-designed summer school program can be of great benefit to students." But, she argued, "retention is a failed policy, and in the long run student test gains do not maintain over time."

Vol. 19, Issue 3, Pages 1, 8-9

Published in Print: September 22, 1999, as Summer School: Amid Successes, Concerns Persist
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