OCR Probing Social Promotion in Chicago

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Chicago's drive to eliminate social promotion, which has won praise from President Clinton, is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights.

In letters this fall to Chicago school officials and to a local watchdog group, OCR investigators said they would review data on Chicago's tough new student-retention policies to see whether they discriminate against minority students.

At issue is the district's heavy reliance on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills in grades 3, 6, and 8 to determine which students are required to attend summer school and which are promoted to the next grade or held back. Parents United for Responsible Education, the Chicago group whose complaint prompted the federal inquiry, says the practice results in disproportionate numbers of retentions for minority students.

Missing Cutoffs

As evidence of its claims, the group points to statistics from the district's transition centers for students whose test scores fall below the cutoff for graduation from the 8th grade. African-American students, who constitute a little more than 53 percent of the overall student population in Chicago's public schools, make up 71 percent of the students in the transition centers. White students constitute 2.6 percent of the transition school population and a little more than 10 percent of the district's 431,000 students.

"We get calls regularly from parents whose children are really being torn apart by this policy," said Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of the advocacy group. "Some of these children have good academic records, but they're not allowed to graduate with their class because they missed the cutoff by a tenth of a point."

But Paul G. Vallas, the district's chief executive officer, said the district's practices were unbiased—in part, he said, because school officials base their promotion decisions on more than test scores. Academic performance and attendance also count.

"With the elimination of social promotion, we stopped the practice of moving students to the next grade who are not academically qualified," Mr. Vallas said in a prepared statement. "What would be discriminatory would be promoting students to the next grade who are not academically prepared."

Ramifications Elsewhere

The OCR has probed state testing practices in Nevada, Ohio, and Texas, among other states, for signs of discrimination, but the review of Chicago's program may be its first district-level inquiry, said Rodger Murphey, an Education Department spokesman.

The outcome of the investigation, which is expected to take about four months, could also have ramifications for other districts. In the mid-1990s, Chicago was among the first big-city districts to require summer school classes for low-scoring students, and widespread news coverage of subsequent test-score gains there led school leaders in New York City, Houston, and other jurisdictions to follow suit.

"Chicago was a relatively extreme example, but it's one that's being emulated," said Monty Neill, the executive director of the Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a national watchdog group based in Cambrige, Mass.

The practice has become more popular even as test-makers continue to warn educators against relying too heavily on their products in making "high stakes" decisions about students' academic futures.

But Mr. Neill also noted that the previous civil rights investigations into state testing policies led to few changes in those programs. The result for Chicago, he added, may be no different.

"The concern is that even if they find there's ostensibly a problem, they won't do anything about it that's meaningful," he said. "The president and the department have made it clear that they like this high-stakes approach to school reform, but it runs potentially contrary to the office for civil rights' own guidelines."

Vol. 19, Issue 15, Page 6

Published in Print: December 8, 1999, as OCR Probing Social Promotion in Chicago
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