Chicago Study Questions Results Of Retention

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Although districts across the nation have been watching—and often copying—Chicago's efforts to ensure that students are prepared for grade-level work, a new report questions the city's policy of retaining students rather than promoting them with their peers.

For More Information

"Ending Social Promotion: Results From the First Two Years," a 1999 report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, examines the effects of Chicago Public Schools' retention policy on students. The organization has published a September 2000 update to the report. (Both items require Adobe's Acrobat Reader.)

The 22-page report by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, a federation of area organizations concerned about schools, found that 3rd and 6th graders who were "socially promoted" in 1995 did as well as, and sometimes better than, students retained in 1997.

Worse, it found that one-third of students retained in 8th grade end up dropping out—a rate roughly the same as in 1995, before the board of education adopted the closely watched promotion policies.

Researchers were even more troubled by rising retention rates in the early grades. Between 1995 and 1997, the number of 1st graders who were retained rose from 1,133 to 2,078, the study found, while the number of 2nd graders retained more than doubled from 662 to 1,398.

"I hear it all the time from teachers: 'We should have retained them earlier. If we had, they wouldn't be like this in 8th grade,'" said Melissa Roderick, the coordinator of the research consortium. "There's no research that shows that [it's true]."

Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the 431,000-student district, said teachers often argued that holding students back before their first high-stakes test in 3rd grade would give them more time to master basic skills. "We gave them the green light," he acknowledged.

Local foes of the city's retention policy saw the research as a vindication of their position, and called for new discussion of the issue.

"It confirms that retaining children is not resulting in the improved performance that had been hoped for," said Anne C. Hallett, the executive director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, a national coalition of urban school advocates based in Chicago.

Good News

Passing rates on mandated tests for 3rd, 6th, and 8th graders improved steadily from 1997 to 1999, the report shows. The greatest jump for first-time test-takers was in 3rd grade, where the pass rate rose from 51 percent in 1997 to 64 percent in 1999.

During that time, the district required that students pass standardized tests before advancing to the next grade. Those who did not were sent to special summer programs. Chicago has since modified its rules to give teachers greater discretion over which students to promote and which to send to summer school.

Students who passed the test after attending mandatory summer school courses also maintained their upward "trajectory," or rate of improvement, in subsequent years.

Mr. Vallas embraced the upward trends as evidence that his district's efforts are working. "The report is missing the two most recent years of data, when these policies have had great successes," he said.

The schools chief added, however, that he remains concerned about "the stubborn issue of dropout rates for hard-to-reach students." For example, 30 percent of the students who are held back two times by the 8th grade drop out of school before they enter 9th grade, the study found.

While this group of some 600 students is small, it makes an important point, Ms. Roderick said: "These students were failing before, and we are not moving them forward now."

Mr. Vallas pointed to a new initiative that he hopes will lower dropout rates. Beginning next fall, students will get to tailor high school courses so they can graduate in three, four, or five years.

The Rochester, N.Y., district this past summer adopted a similar plan, which also will offer diploma programs over three, four, and five years. ("Rochester Plan Adds Flexibility to High School," Aug. 2, 2000.)

In Chicago, 7th and 8th graders who want to graduate in three years will be able to earn up to four high school credits, and then enter high school at the sophomore level. The four-year program will resemble the typical high school calendar, but with more options for college- credit courses or work experience.

Under the five-year plan, students who fail to earn the minimum grade in core courses in their first year will repeat the class. "The theory is that if they've taken the course once, they will be better prepared the second time," Mr. Vallas said.

A student struggling in algebra, however, could take honors English. Students on the traditional four- year track could even take courses in a fifth year to prepare for college- entrance exams.

Chicago's CEO estimates that some 5,000 of roughly 15,000 high school seniors may join the five-year plan. "If I get 5,000 students in the program, my dropout rate will fall to the single digits," Mr. Vallas said.

But some observers predict it will be hard to overcome the stigma of joining the slower track.

"Giving students more time to finish high school is a good idea, but the Chicago idea is misguided," said Donald R. Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change, a local school advocacy group. "Chicago already has a practice of isolating low-achieving students, and it doesn't work."

Vol. 20, Issue 3, Page 3

Published in Print: September 20, 2000, as Chicago Study Questions Results Of Retention
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