School & District Management

Study Looks at Retention Policy In Chicago

By Debra Viadero — January 12, 2000 5 min read
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The first evaluation of the much-publicized campaign to end social promotion in Chicago is serving up fodder for both critics and supporters of that effort, allowing neither side to claim total victory.


“Ending Social Promotion: Results From the First Two Years” can be viewed online at (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The city’s 431,000-student district made headlines in 1996 with its “get tough’’ policy requiring 3rd, 6th, and 8th graders to earn at least a minimum score on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills before they could move on to the next grade. Since then, the policy has been praised by President Clinton and emulated by other urban districts seeking to end the automatic promotion of low-performing students.

The findings released last month by the independent Chicago Consortium on School Research show that in some respects the praise was on target. In each of the first two years, more students passed the tests. The number of 6th graders scoring above the cutoff, for example, rose by 20 percent from 1995—the year before the policy went into effect—to 1997. The number of 8th graders passing the exam went up 21 percent over the same period. And the greatest gains were made by students considered to be at the highest risk of failing.

Much of the increase was due to the district’s “summer bridge” program—mandatory summer school for students flunking the tests. After six weeks in that program, an additional 13 percent of city 6th graders passed the tests on their next try.

On the down side, however, students who were held back because they still couldn’t pass the test in August were doing no better two years later than similarly unsuccessful students who had been automatically promoted in previous years, the researchers found. And they caution that the policy might be effectively pushing those hard-to-reach students out the schoolhouse door sooner than before: Though overall dropout rates in 8th grade were the same in 1997 as they were in 1995, more of the recent dropouts were students who failed to make the cutoff.

Melissa Roderick

“The proportion of kids making the standard has been rising. Then you get the kids who don’t pass the test and, for them, the six-week summer program really makes a difference,” said Melissa Roderick, the lead author of the study. “Now, we’re saying, ‘OK, guys, it’s time to focus on the retention year.’ For those kids that are left, you have to do something really different to solve their problems.”

Mixed Reactions

Outside the consortium, however, reactions to the study were more extreme. Chicago school officials hailed the findings as the “the strongest evidence to date” that their efforts were working.

Meanwhile, parent groups and some outside researchers said the study’s other findings proved the program had failed.

Gary Orfield

''There is massive evidence that this is a misbegotten policy,’' Harvard University researcher Gary Orfield contended in a prepared statement on the study. “We should stop this policy now before there is irreparable damage to a generation of Chicago school children.”

Test scores rose, said Robert M. Hauser, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison because of the summer classes, because teachers were teaching to the test, and because students became more familiar with the test each time they took it.

But, he added, “there is no credible evidence of lasting educational benefit, either to those who passed or those who failed.”

Strong condemnations also came from Designs for Change, a local research and advocacy group, and from Parents United for Responsible Education, a parent group that recently filed a complaint against the district’s testing policies with the U.S. Department of Education. (“OCR Probing Social Promotion in Chicago,” Dec. 8, 1999.)

Designs for Change, in particular, pointed to data from the report indicating that the policy may be disproportionately affecting minority students. The numbers suggest, for example, that black students were 4.5 times more likely to be retained than white students in 1997. Hispanic students’ chances of retention were three times as high.

But Ms. Roderick, who is an associate professor of social service administration at the University of Chicago, said talk of scrapping the program may be premature. Her co-authors on the study were: Anthony S. Bryk, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for School Improvement; Brian A. Jacob, a research analyst for the consortium; John Q. Easton, the consortium’s deputy director; and Elaine Allensworth, a senior research associate for the consortium. “This is the toughest problem in education, and it’s going to take a long time to solve,” Ms. Roderick said.

Program Adjustments

Chicago school officials say they are adopting measures to try to head off problems before students have to repeat a grade. Those include: early- childhood learning programs, after-school and extended-day activities, a summer school for struggling 1st and 2nd graders, and vision screening and free eyeglasses. Some of those efforts were not yet in place during the study.

The consortium researchers also found that, despite the school system’s get-tough image, thousands of students who could have been retained actually were allowed to advance to the next grade. Of the 16,744 students in all three grades who met the retention criteria in 1997, for example, only 10,119 repeated a grade. The rest won waivers through a process Ms. Roderick said “stinks of arbitrariness.”

Moreover, large numbers of special education and students with limited English proficiency were excluded from the policy requirements altogether.

The study also found that the program did a better job of raising test scores for older students than younger ones. Between 1995 and 1997, the proportion of 3rd graders who met the minimum cutoff basically held steady.

And while the “summer bridge” students raised their scores, they were not able to maintain that progress a year after they were promoted.

The researchers said future reports will include third-year data from the program.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Study Looks at Retention Policy In Chicago


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