Student Achievement

More Chicago Pupils Flunk Grade

By Catherine Gewertz — October 09, 2002 7 min read
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For six years, Chicago has conducted a high-profile crackdown on social promotion, touting it as a no-nonsense way to ensure that students literally make the grade. But now, the country’s third-largest school district is flunking more students than ever, stirring new life into an old debate about whether retaining students is on balance harmful or helpful.

Figures released by the Chicago district last month show that of the 32,838 students in the 3rd, 6th, and 8th grades who were required to attend summer school this year, 13,308—nearly 41 percent—didn’t qualify for promotion to the next grade. Most of those children failed the end-of-summer test; some never showed up to take it or never enrolled in summer school as required.

The numbers are the highest since the inception of the program in 1997 and represent a sharp upward spike from last year.

District leaders were quick to defend the program, saying the higher retention rates were produced by raising the bar that students must meet to move on to the next grade. That bar combines standardized-test scores with factors such as grades, classroom tests, homework completion, and attendance.

Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the 437,000-student district, admitted it was hard to watch the numbers rise, but said he had fully anticipated the increase because the district “raised standards to the highest they’ve been.”

“I’m absolutely committed to this,” Mr. Duncan said. “The most damage we could do to students is to socially promote them when they are not academically prepared. We set them up for social failure and for dropping out. It’s morally and educationally wrong.”

While district students’ scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills have reached their highest levels in years, large numbers of students still are being held back because the test-score cutoff for promotion was raised, Mr. Duncan said. He promised intensive help for the schools with the highest retention rates, including full-time reading specialists, enhanced professional development for teachers, and additional tutoring in after-school programs.

Mixed Benefits

To critics of retention, Chicago’s new data offered evidence that the program was flawed from the start.

Donald R. Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change, a Chicago nonprofit group that presses for school improvement, contended that the district should heed a growing body of research that finds no benefit in making students repeat a grade.

“It’s a politically popular initiative, but it harms kids in the long term,” Mr. Moore said. He cited a Chicago study that found retained students had performed no better than similarly underperforming peers who were promoted, and that they were at greater risk of dropping out.

A better solution, Mr. Moore said, is to adopt a program in which lagging students receive intensive help in their regular classrooms during the school year, and in after-school and summer programs.

Research has found mixed benefits for programs aimed at curbing social promotion, the practice of moving students to the next grade even though they haven’t achieved up to par. (“Ending Social Promotion,” March 15, 2002.)

Some of the researchers who have done such studies drew differing conclusions from Chicago’s new numbers.

Anthony S. Bryk co-wrote a 1999 Chicago study showing that while summer school helped students pass standardized tests after failing on their first try, there was no evidence that holding students back a grade provided any long-term benefit. In fact, it increased their chances of dropping out. Considering those findings, Mr. Bryk said, Chicago’s newest retention rates “have to be viewed as worrisome.”

Mr. Bryk, the director of the University of Chicago’s Center for School Improvement, favors an approach that emphasizes intervention in the primary grades, such as the model outlined by Mr. Moore, and uses retention only as a “last resort” for families that have been unwilling to take advantage of such offerings.

A. Gary Dworkin, a professor of sociology at the University of Houston whose 1999 study of retained students in Texas found that they outperformed similarly struggling peers who had been socially promoted, said that a rise in the retention rate “doesn’t necessarily mean the program is a failure.”

“What we are finding,” he said, “is that when retention is done judiciously, where kids are not given back to the same teacher, where there is a lot of other activity like pullout programs, enrichment, and after-school programs, and enough accountability to hold both a carrot and a stick over teachers and schools to improve the achievement of the lowest-performing groups, then retention doesn’t have the negative consequences that are so often reported.”

Other cities that adopted policies to curb social promotion in the wake of Chicago’s much-watched undertaking have used varying approaches with varying results.

In Baltimore, students in grades 1-8 must attend summer school if they don’t meet criteria based on grades, classroom work, and standardized tests, said Vanessa Pyatt, a spokeswoman for the 93,000-student district.

After piloting the program in one area of the district in 2000, Baltimore expanded it districtwide in 2001. In 2002, its second year, 43,260 students in grades 1-8 were required to attend the summer program. Of those, 20,000—46 percent—were held back. (High school students are not included in those numbers. They must attend summer school only if they lack credits.)

High Absenteeism

And, like many districts whose summer school absenteeism is high, the Baltimore numbers look worse when no-shows are considered: Only 29,258 of the students in grades 1-8 who were required to attend summer school showed up. Of those who actually attended the summer session, then, 68 percent were not promoted.

“This did not catch us by surprise,” Ms. Pyatt said. “We’ve been bracing ourselves for the worst, knowing we would be in this for three to four years.”

And the Baltimore district expects things to get worse before they get better. The city-state panel that was appointed to run the troubled district five years ago has voted to raise the grade cutoff required for promotion, effective next spring. To help failing students in the meantime, Ms. Pyatt said, the district offers them extra instruction, monitors them more closely, and sends home more frequent notices to their parents about potential problems.

Boston takes a different approach in its 4-year-old program. Students in grades 2-3 and 5-11 who do not meet criteria on tests, grades, and attendance must attend summer school. Rather than retaining all students who fail the end-of-summer test, however, Boston built a “transition” program into the grades it considers pivotal.

Students in grades 2, 5, and 8 who don’t make the cutoff after summer school can be “promoted to transition,” meaning they move ahead to the next grade, but with intensive instructional assistance, said Sidney W. Smith, the director of curriculum and instructional practices for the 62,000-student district. But if they fail after grades 3, 6, and 9, they can be held back.

The Boston program allows for customized solutions as well. High school students can repeat only those subjects in which they failed to make the cutoff, rather than repeat all courses within the grade, Mr. Smith said.

In the three years for which it has data, Boston has seen the number of students required to attend summer school increase, from 10,814 in 2000 to 13,970 in 2002. It added 10th and 11th grades to its program in 2002.

But the proportion of those required to attend who are then retained has decreased, from 14 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in both 2001 and 2002. The number of children “promoted to transition” has decreased each year as well.

On the ground in Chicago, school leaders are still trying to sort out why some schools do better than others in catapulting students past the cutoffs for grade promotion, despite the poverty experienced by 80 percent of the students in the district.

At Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School on Chicago’s West Side, Principal Warren R. Franczyk did a bit better than the districtwide average this year in the number of students retained. In his school of 600 K-8 pupils, where under 2 percent of students pay the full price for lunch, only a third of the students who were required to attend summer school were held back.

Mr. Franczyk, who has served as Bethune’s principal for 18 years, says his numbers would be worse if not for a combination of district and school-based programs to help academically troubled youngsters early on.

“Without early intervention, the retention program would really concern me,” Mr. Franczyk said. “Retention itself doesn’t benefit anyone. But early intervention does. I see it every year.”


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