School & District Management

Chicago’s Social Promotion Ban Quietly Fades

By Sarah Karp & Catalyst Chicago — May 11, 2011 15 min read
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As Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley prepares to leave office, the latest statistics on student retention serve as a legacy of one of his most sweeping and controversial education reforms: the ban on social promotion.

Only 4 percent of students in the benchmark grades were held back this year—a sharp drop from the first years of Daley’s policy, when nearly 15 percent of students had to repeat a grade. Daley’s get-tough policy dealt only with 3rd, 6th and 8th grades, but retention has fallen even in the non-benchmark years, to less than 1 percent from about 4 percent.

Daley made national news, most of it positive despite the research showing retention is harmful, when he announced in 1996 that students would have to hit a certain score on standardized tests to move on to the next grade. Former President Bill Clinton even noted Daley’s move in two State of the Union speeches. Other states and school districts followed Chicago’s lead with social promotion bans of their own.

Some principals say the policy changed their schools for the better, with students working harder as they and their parents realized that there would be no “getting by” to the next grade. But 15 years later, education advocates and experts doubt that the decline in retention stems from a real improvement in student learning.

Meanwhile, the district is facing a federal investigation because of the disproportionate impact of the policy on black and Latino students. (Catalyst Chicago sought the latest data on student retention by race, but the request was denied by CPS.)

And since 1996, CPS officials have quietly been weakening the policy, making it easier for students to clear the bar even if they are doing poorly academically.

• In 2006, the same year the state made the Illinois Standards Achievement Test easier to pass, CPS officials lowered the promotion score on the SAT 10 (the section of the ISAT on which promotion decisions are based) to the 24th percentile from the 35th percentile.

• During the past three years, more than 10,000 students who did not pass summer school were still sent to the next grade. CPS officials cite a host of reasons, including the appeals process and a policy against retaining a student twice within three years.

• Scores by CPS 8th-graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have barely budged since 2002 (the year the U.S. Department of Education began reporting results separately for specific urban districts) in either reading or math.

• At the time of Daley’s new policy, the board had already instituted a high school promotion policy that required students to pass all their freshman classes and reach a certain score on a standardized test. Those who didn’t meet the benchmarks were supposed to attend summer school. But by and large, high school students refused to show up. Now, the only consequence of failing a class is placement in a division period solely for students who have failed.

Reliance on the ISAT

The major problem with the promotion policy is that it is based on a metric that is flawed, says Charles Payne, the lauded University of Chicago professor and interim chief education officer for CPS. The metric Payne refers to: the ISAT.

“It doesn’t measure what we care about,” he says. “We care about getting students ready to graduate high school, do well on the SAT and perform in college.”

When Daley’s policy was approved, CPS believed that tough standards, summer school and transition centers for struggling students would equip freshmen with an essential skill: the ability to read a high school textbook, says Blondean Davis, the superintendent for south suburban Matteson who was Chicago’s chief of schools and regions at the time.

Officials knew they couldn’t raise the bar too high and insist that 8th-graders perform at grade level. Too many students were lagging and the district would wind up with overflow classes in summer school and too many children held back, Davis says.

Over time, Davis has become more skeptical about retention. If it is to be done, she agrees with Payne: The ISAT should not be the gatekeeper test.

In Matteson School District 162, Davis says very few students are held back and the process is subjective, done in consultation with teachers, parents and principals.

“I’ve had a lot of time to think about it,” Davis says. “Retention has to be the last resort.”

Designs For Change Executive Director Donald Moore suspects CPS officials came to the same conclusion.

“I think Daley was too wedded to the policy for them to come out and say they dropped it,” Moore says. “But over time, that is what they de facto did.” As a result, the retention rate is back to the same level as prior to Daley’s policy.

Key Points

Chicago was once lauded for its tough policy against social promotion, the practice of passing students even when they cannot do grade-level work. Today, CPS passes more students than it did before the policy. But most observers agree, and national exams taken by 8th-graders bear out, that the drop in failures is not the result of better preparation for high school—the goal of the policy. Other factors are at play.

• Meeting the benchmark on the SAT 10, the section of the state test used in promotion decisions, is easier than in the past. The test was made easier, and CPS lowered the benchmark over time.

• Each year, thousands of students are moved up even if they fail to meet promotion standards. Some students win an appeal. Others fall under a policy preventing a student from being retained twice within three years.

• CPS has yet to figure out how to help teens who have turned 15 without passing 8th grade. These students are sent to achievement academies within neighborhood high schools. But 80 percent of achievement academy students drop out. CPS is rethinking the entire program.

• Research clearly points to the detrimental effect of retention, which puts students at higher risk of dropping out. In a best-case scenario, students in danger of being retained are identified early and given extra help.

• Experts point out that retention is not an effective school improvement strategy. And high-retention schools are typically grappling with a host of challenges, including high mobility and poverty.

SOURCE: Catalyst Chicago

Over the past decade, Moore has written several papers criticizing the policy and pointing out the reams of research showing that retention is harmful to children.

In 2000 and 2004, the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago came out with two studies showing that retained students were not academically better off than classmates at around the same skill level who were moved on, and that retained students were far more likely to drop out. (In all, the Consortium has published seven reports in its series Ending Social Promotion, on the detrimental effects of retention.)

Payne says he doesn’t think that retention has ever been done correctly in Chicago, and therefore, it is hard to judge whether or not the practice is good. “Are you retaining and then assigning the best teachers to small classrooms?” he says. “We have had mediocre interventions.”

At the time, the district saw the new policy as part of a comprehensive academic plan. But over time, the supports and extras offered to retained students have dried up and are now “hit and miss,” say those who work in schools.

Budget Cuts and Supports

Every year, the summer school program is subject to budget constraints. In 2010, money for it was severely cut, sessions were offered only four days per week for five weeks and class sizes were large. Yet the percentage of students promoted after summer school reached its highest point ever, 76 percent.

Interim CEO Terry Mazany made summer school a priority and scraped together a proposed budget that would allow the program to return to five days a week for six weeks this summer. Flavia Hernandez, who oversees summer school, is hopeful that the budget will stick through the transition to another administration.

Other supports have disappeared altogether. Schools with large numbers of failed students no longer get an extra teacher. And the Lighthouse tutoring program, which offered every retained student extra help and a warm meal, is no more. Retained students are directed to tutoring that the district is required to offer under No Child Left Behind. That program has also been cut drastically in recent years.

Payne hopes that dependence on the ISAT will change in the near future. The state has signed on to the Common Core Standards, along with more than 40 other states, and will have to adopt a new assessment tied to them. At that point, Payne expects the district will change the promotion policy so that it is based on the new test.

Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University’s Urban Education Center, notes that retention based on test scores (as well as the district’s school probation policy, also based on test scores) has led to a harmful phenomenon: a narrowing of the curriculum so that it aligns more closely with the standardized test. Therefore, students are more likely to score well on the test.

“So much of the curriculum is tied to shallow targets,” Radner says. The problem is that the ISAT is mostly multiple-choice questions, and the state provides a list of skills that are tested. To prepare for the test, many students are taught isolated skills, not critical thinking. In high school and beyond, being able to comprehend and analyze is of utmost importance.

Passing 3rd Grade

Spencer Elementary School Principal Shawn L. Jackson knows the challenges of the policy first-hand. His school, with 786 students in the heart of the impoverished Austin neighborhood on the West Side, is third on the list of schools that retain the most children.

Most failures occur in 3rd grade. In 2010, nearly a third of Spencer 3rd-graders were retained.

As a result, the 3rd grade is by far the largest, as true 3rd-graders are combined with repeaters. This year, the 3rd grade has 116 children and four teachers, making for class sizes of about 28.

Jackson makes every effort to give the children extra support. Parent volunteers pull out retained students and low-achievers from class every day to work on sight words and phonics. During the school’s reading period, an enrichment teacher works with children who are reading above grade level to allow classroom teachers to focus on students who are reading just at grade level or below. A retired teacher comes in twice per week to provide extra assistance to 3rd-grade teachers. Student teachers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and DePaul University serve as tutors. After-school programs offer academics for retained students and other children.

But Cynthia Peterson, who works on community outreach and parent empowerment, says that from her perspective, the after-school programs are ineffective. After the first day or two, attendance drops off.

“It should be at capacity, but you have a teacher standing in front of [only] 10 children. What good is that?” she says. “The parents don’t take it seriously, or they let their child stop coming because [the child] said it was boring.”

Peterson, whose adult daughters—and their children—all attended Spencer, says parents who wanted help didn’t always get it in the past. The situation has improved under Jackson.

Jackson says that parents, too, have to take some responsibility. This year, Peterson and 3rd-grade teachers held a meeting for parents to let them know what they needed to do to help their children pass. Peterson sent a letter to parents, warning them that if they didn’t get this information, their child would be in danger of failing.

Forty parents came—a great turnout for the school, but not so great considering the number of 3rd-grade students.

Jackson says the heavy lifting must be done in the primary years to prepare students to succeed in 3rd grade. He emphasizes this point to teachers and to parents, who sometimes “tune out” about the importance of making sure their children work hard in non-benchmark grades.

At Spencer, there’s another consideration. The campus includes two buildings—a big, aging brick building with wide hallways, and a small, ranch-style building. When Jackson arrived, students spent only kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade in the small building. Two years ago, Jackson decided children should stay there, given its more nurturing atmosphere, for another year. Third grade is already a whammy for children, he notes—there’s more independent work, the curriculum requires more comprehension and there’s the real threat of being held back. “All of a sudden, you are in ‘3rd grade,’” Jackson says.

But having 3rd-graders in a building separate from those in 4th grade and up has created another dynamic: “Going over to the big building” is now code for passing.

Different Tactics

The fear and pressure are palpable in the school. A week before the ISAT, 3rd-grade teachers are navigating tricky waters, trying to prepare their students without freaking them out.

Linda Jean Horton, a 15-year-veteran, blows a whistle to get the attention of her class. Horton and another teacher have stayed after school voluntarily for the last few months to do ISAT prep with 3rd-graders. Horton wishes more of them had come. Now she’s spending these last few days doing more test prep.

After lunch, Horton dims the lights and puts up a sample ISAT reading test on a projector. She directs the students to go through the questions and answer them on their own. They then vote on the answer and she tells them the correct one. Most of the children dutifully answer the question and vote. No one asks why the correct answer is right, and Horton does not explain.

In another classroom, Claude Archie, a teddy-bear of a teacher, takes a different approach. He wants to get the creative wheels oiled up, saying he’s already spent ample time showing students how to sit and correctly fill in the bubbles on the exam.

Archie has his students write letters to President Barack Obama with their ideas about how to fix schools. He plays classical music as the students work. Every now and then, Archie speaks to one of them—“Less talking, more thinking.”

Archie later says the weight of the upcoming test is intense. Seven of his 27 students were retained and are taking the 3rd-grade ISAT again. Other assessments given so far show steady progress, and Archie hopes this will translate into better results on the ISAT.

But there’s a wide disparity in skill levels among his students. A data chart shows that on an exam taken in September, a handful of students scored above 80 percent while, 17 of 25 scored at 50 percent or below.

Archie asks two boys to hand him their letters. One of them has written, “I think the schools in the area need to be changed because some don’t have productive textbooks for the kids so they will learn less. Another reason is all the violence happening all over the place.”

Archie says this student is working at grade level.

The other boy was held back. He writes, “Mr. President Obama, I think that you may want to change some stuff in Illinois about edugchin, about schools and the neaberhood. We are not doing good… We need to change somehow… I don’t like how it is in neaberhood and school.”

Retention has long been concentrated in a small number of schools. In 1998, half of retained students attended 129 schools, 26 percent of all elementary schools. Today, half attend just 85 schools, or 16 percent. The vast majority, 87 percent, of these schools are predominantly black, up from 80 percent in 1998.

Outside Influences

Most of these schools are struggling in other ways, too, with high poverty rates, high mobility and higher-than-average enrollment of students with special needs.

Last fall, Julie Woestehoff, executive director of the advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education, convinced the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to embark on an investigation of the promotion policy because of its impact on black and Latino students.

Woestehoff and other advocates thought they had won a victory in 2000 when they convinced CPS to change the policy to include other factors in promotion decisions. (The current policy requires that students have no more than nine unexcused absences and a “C” or higher in core subjects.) She envisioned that each factor would be weighed as part of the decision. But instead, she says she’s been disappointed to see that each one acts as a barrier. For example, a student who fails a reading class can be sent to summer school automatically, the same as if he or she had scored below the required threshold on the ISAT.

Woestehoff says her discussions with CPS officials led her to believe that they realize the policy is problematic.

But giving it up might be seen, in some eyes, as retreating. Common sense says that just passing students on from one grade to the next, even if they are not prepared, is not good. At a January forum on urban education at Kennedy-King College, a panel of educators and activists rallied against social promotion.

“The fundamental question is, ‘How much do we love our young brothers?’” said Cornel West, author and professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. West went on to say that middle-class families would not accept having their children simply passed along without learning anything.

Sitting next to him, Wentworth Elementary School Principal Dina Linne Everage noted that she still has students who cannot read even though they’re in 8th grade. Passing students along to make them feel good doesn’t help, she said.

“The very problem with social promotion is that it stops once you get to the real world,” Everage noted.

Emotional Toll

Spencer Principal Jackson, who attended the forum, says as soon as the panelists started talking about it, he realized they were looking at it from the perspective of the end product.

But Jackson says he sees how children lose their spirit when they are held back. “I see both sides of the coin. We have children’s lives in our hands. Retaining children is a harsh reality.”

Woestehoff voices a similar sentiment, saying failed students become sacrificial lambs. “[For them] it is 100 percent bad,” she says.

Linda Hudson and her 6th-grade son, Josh, have had to confront this harsh reality. Last June, Josh received a letter stating that he would have to attend summer school because of low test scores in math. He had received a C in math on his report card.

Hudson told him to suck it up and get through summer school. Josh attends Black Magnet in Calumet Heights, but he was sent to Caldwell—a school that held back more children than any other in the city last year—for summer school. He passed math, but failed reading, a subject that he tests well in, Hudson notes.

Hudson, outraged, went to the teacher, who told her that Josh got zeros on some tests because he was talking. Hudson appealed to the principal at Black, who was supportive, but said there was nothing he could do about it—Josh would have to repeat the 6th grade.

A commonly heard complaint about the promotion policy is that decisions are made automatically, at central office, with no input from teachers or principals, and no meaningful appeals process. Hudson also says she was never given the opportunity to show evidence that her son was ready to move up, and that it took the district seven months to give her Josh’s summer school grades—which showed that his reading skills were good.

Hudson says the principal at Black, which has a 99 percent promotion rate, provides Josh with tutoring; his teachers give him extra attention. Yet he still comes home some days in tears. “The 7th-grade boys see him in the hall and call him a ‘dumb ass,’” she says. He also got into an altercation with a girl who repeated that insult.

Hudson keeps him involved in activities on the weekends, so that he has areas where he feels successful and confident. But she wonders why Josh couldn’t have just gone on to 7th grade and gotten extra help there.

At Spencer, Peterson also sees how retention is demoralizing. She works with one little boy who constantly makes jokes and won’t focus on school work. Her conclusion: “He feels inadequate, almost like he is humiliated.”

As she watches the boy grapple with repeating a grade, Peterson thinks of her grandson, whose twin brother moved up to 4th grade while he stayed in 3rd. “They say ‘no child left behind.’ But he actually was left behind.”

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Republished with permission from Catalyst Chicago. Copyright © 2011 Community Renewal Society.
A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2011 edition of Education Week as Chicago’s Social Promotion Ban Quietly Fades


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