Student Achievement

Studies Fault Results of Retention In Chicago

By Andrew Trotter — April 14, 2004 3 min read

Many pupils who are held back in grades 3, 6, and 8 in the Chicago public schools do not benefit from retention, and some do worse than students who are promoted without additional help, according to two major studies released last week.

“Ending Social Promotion: The Effects of Retention,” and “Ending Social Promotion: Dropout Rates in Chicago after Implementation of the Eighth-Grade Promotion Gate,” are available online from the Consortium on Chicago School Research. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Researchers from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, based at the University of Chicago, say the district’s nationally watched remedial programs for retained students are not working for many—a conclusion Chicago school officials disputed.

“Another approach is needed for students who are struggling,” said Jenny Nagaoka, the lead author for the study of retention in grades 3 and 6. “One thing that becomes really clear is that CPS really needs to be focusing on kindergarten and earlier education for 3- and 4-year-olds, before they start school.”

In the other study, which examined the relationship between 8th grade retention and school dropout rates, researcher Elaine Allensworth, the consortium’s associate director for statistical analysis and archives, found that 78 percent of the students retained in 8th grade dropped out by the time they turned 19.

Chicago’s retention policy, implemented in the 1996-97 school year and modified slightly periodically, holds students in the current grade if they fail to achieve the minimum scores in reading and mathematics in May on the 3rd, 6th, and 8th grade versions of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. The policy replaced “social promotion,” which favors advancing students to keep them with children their own age.

Under the policy, between 7,000 and 10,000 students are held back in grades, 3, 6, and 8 each year in the 434,000-student district.

Students who don’t achieve the cutoff scores attend the “Summer Bridge” program, a summer school that lasts six weeks for 3rd and 6th graders and eight weeks for 8th graders. At the end of summer, pupils take the tests again. If they still don’t pass, they start school again in the same grade. In the third and fourth years of the policy, students had one more chance to rejoin their peers by retaking the tests in January and scoring above the cutoffs.

Many students’ test scores do improve after the summer program—a bright spot in the researchers’ findings, according to Ms. Nagaoka, a staff researcher at the University of Chicago’s school of social service administration. Co-author Melissa Roderick is an associate professor there. The researchers said that for other students, retention has not been an effective policy. “We are still left with a group of kids for whom it doesn’t seem that working harder and so forth is having an effect,” Ms. Nagaoka said.

Still Behind

And even students who barely exceeded the cutoff scores don’t do much better than retained students, researchers found.

“Students in 3rd grade who barely avoided being retained are doing slightly better, by 6th and 8th grade, than kids who were retained, but they’re still far behind” other students, Ms. Nagaoka said.

One reason is that teachers don’t know methods for helping very low-performing students, whose troubles may be misdiagnosed as learning disabilities. Indeed, the 3rd and 6th grade study found that almost 20 percent of the retained students were placed in special education, possibly as a last-ditch strategy by teachers who didn’t know what else to do, Ms. Nagaoka said.

Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the Chicago schools, said in a statement that he disagreed with the view that the retention policy is ineffective. "[C]ommon sense, and even some research by the consortium, tells you that ending social promotions contributed to the higher test scores and lower dropout rates of the last eight years,” he said.

The Chicago district unveiled plans last month, in fact, to start an intensive reading program at elementary schools with high retention rates. Kindergartners at those schools will undergo literacy assessments, continuing through 3rd grade. Other plans include full- day kindergarten; “looping” of teachers so students will have the same teacher for consecutive years; a mandatory summer program; and smaller class sizes.

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