Student Achievement

Chicago Summer Progress Found Short-Lived

By Catherine Gewertz — March 19, 2003 4 min read
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Chicago’s mandatory summer school program for struggling students produces significant short-term gains that allow many children to raise their test scores and win promotion, but delivers little long-term improvement in their school performance, a report contends.

The study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, released last week, includes a mixture of findings about the first four years of the district’s 6- year-old program to end social promotion. Under that practice, schools move students to the next grade even though they appear academically unready.

Key among the findings was that children who had attended the program because they scored just below the district’s cutoff on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills showed greater average gains on that exam in the two years after attending summer school than did their peers who avoided the program by scoring slightly above the cutoff.

The report, “Ending Social Promotion: Results From Summer Bridge,” is available from the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

A response to the report has been posted by Designs for Change.

The study did not address the issue of long-range effects on students who scored further below the cutoff.

The researchers called the long-term effects of the Summer Bridge program “encouraging,” but modest. They noted that while those just-below-the- cutoff students gained, they still lagged behind peers who didn’t have to attend the program.

“At best, it appears that Summer Bridge allowed these students to narrow the gap between themselves and students slightly above the cutoff. ... [They] improved their learning gains, but they did not accelerate their rate of learning in subsequent years,” the researchers write.

The report is one in a series by the independent research consortium on Chicago’s widely watched summer program, which is mandatory for about one-third of district 3rd, 6th, and 8th graders and serves more than 20,000 children a year. The co-authors hope to inform educators and policymakers as they shape strategies for improving achievement.

‘Catch-Up’ Program

Critics found in the report additional ammunition for their claims that the 437,000- student district’s promotion policy is misbegotten.

Donald R. Moore, the executive director of the advocacy group Designs For Change and a member of the consortium’s steering committee, said Summer Bridge’s benefits reflect test preparation, not true academic mastery. Those benefits don’t justify its impact on the thousands of children forced to repeat a grade after flunking summer school, he said.

The report notes that only 40 percent of the 3rd graders and half of the 6th and 8th graders required to attend Summer Bridge were promoted to the next grade. Mr. Moore pointed out that the number of students held back a grade under the program hit an all-time high last year. (“More Chicago Pupils Flunk Grade,” Oct. 9, 2002.)

“What we see is that kids who are going to summer school are not, in the long term, doing any better,” said Mr. Moore. “So you’ve got this enormously expensive program that is basically a failure.”

The report’s lead author, Melissa Roderick, said Summer Bridge offers a significant “catch-up,” but she cautioned policymakers against relying on a summer program for long-term academic improvement.

“We’ve got to get the education establishment away from the idea that there is a fixer for kids,” said Ms. Roderick, who also is the co-director of planning and development for the Chicago schools. “You have a group of vulnerable kids that need a lot of attention. You can give them a boost, but the only thing that will change their learning in the [regular school year] classroom is to change what goes on in that classroom.”

Among the study’s optimistic findings is that Summer Bridge students improved more quickly during its short span than they did in the 37 weeks of the regular school year.

Third graders, for instance, made the equivalent of five months’ progress in reading during the regular 1996-97 school year, compared with 21/2 months’ progress in the 1997 summer program.

Summer school also appeared to help students of all demographic groups and achievement levels, though in varying amounts. Third graders with the lowest ITBS scores, for instance, made greater gains in reading over the summer than did those with higher test scores, but the reverse held true in math. Among 6th and 8th graders, the greatest summer gains came largely among children with moderate and higher ITBS scores.

Another promising finding was that summer school teachers who knew their students from the regular school year were more likely to customize teaching to their needs and deliver greater improvements. In addition, students spoke positively of the high expectations and small class sizes—averaging 16 pupils—in the summer program.

Areas of concern remained, however, including the finding that higher-performing schools generally saw greater improvements in their summer school students than did lower-performing schools, and that 3rd graders, by and large, benefited less from the program than did 6th and 8th graders.

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