March 13 — 12:00 am, 2003

Looking for lessons from Chicago about promotion, retention

Many students were held back when Vallas introduced a testing standard for students

Some of the personnel, many of the policies, and much of the attitude that School District CEO Paul Vallas has brought to Philadelphia in recent months have come with him from Chicago.

One key and controversial facet of his program as schools chief in Chicago was introduced here in March before the School Reform Commission — a grade retention program in which students can be made to repeat a grade if they have low scores on standardized tests.

Chicago’s promotion policy

In Chicago, Vallas dramatically changed the way many students were promoted from grade to grade in his effort to end "social promotion." The model that he implemented — as well as the opposition and criticisms that it provoked — provides a snapshot of the changes likely to come to Philadelphia.

In 1996, Vallas initiated in Chicago a large-scale grade retention program relying on standardized tests. In third, sixth, and eighth grades, students took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) in reading and math. Students who failed to reach a minimum score on either or both sections of the test were required to attend summer school. After completing summer school, they took the ITBS again. If they again failed to meet the minimum score in either or both subjects, they were required to repeat their grade.

In 1997, the Chicago Tribune reported that "56 percent of the third graders and 43 percent of the sixth graders in summer school failed" and that "preliminary figures show[ed] better results for eighth graders, with only 35 percent projected to fail."

The numbers looked like this: 5,817 third graders and 3,584 sixth graders that year were held back. These students did not meet the minimum required scores on the ITBS during the regular school year or on a retest after attending mandatory summer school.

Program evolution

The Chicago grade retention program remains in place today, though it has been modified slightly over the past five years, with resources being deployed to support low-achieving students.

In response to the high numbers of third graders retained, Vallas made summer school available for low-achieving first and second graders. The School Board sent extra teachers to the elementary schools with the highest numbers of retained students to reduce class sizes. The afterschool Lighthouse program, providing extra instruction to students, was made available to 364 elementary schools. And the district opened "transition centers," where retained eighth graders over 15 years old were to receive instruction until they could meet minimum requirements of the ITBS.

Criteria for retention evolved from year to year. Each June from 1997 to 2000, the minimum required score on the ITBS for eighth graders was raised, and in June 2000 it was raised for the first time for sixth graders.

In the fall of 2000, Vallas implemented changes to the retention policy to permit teachers to consider grades, attendance, behavior, and classroom assessments when determining whether students who were slightly below the cutoff point on the ITBS could be promoted. Vallas was quoted in Catalyst (a magazine about the Chicago Public Schools) as saying, "I felt that we’d gone high enough with the test standards, that now we’d rest and bring in the classroom aspects and codify them. Students who have trouble with tests now have the insurance policy of being able to do well in class and get to move on that way."

In response to these "relaxed" retention standards, by 2000, the numbers of retained students had decreased significantly. In September of 2002 (after Vallas’s departure from Chicago), however, the Chicago Tribune reported that retention rates had doubled. School officials attributed the rise in retentions to tougher testing standards put in place by new schools chief Arne Duncan.

Praise and criticism

Earlier, Catalyst had reported, "The [retention] policy has borne fruit in rising test scores, greater success in summer school, and glowing public notice, notably a mention by President Clinton in his 1999 State of the Union message."

Researchers on the impact of the retention program reported divided results. The Consortium on Chicago School Research suggested that the program primarily benefited two groups of students: those who worked harder and performed better because of the threat of being held back, and those who were able to make the cutoff score at the end of summer school.

Other researchers and advocates, including Donald Moore from Designs for Change, challenged the impact of the retention program.

Moore argued that the summer programs were not adequately helping a sufficient number of students pass. He also contended that retained students were not "catching up" as a result of being retained. In fact, he maintained they showed less educational advancement and were more likely to drop out than students who were socially promoted.

Moore also found that "African-American students were 4.5 times more likely to be retained than white students in 1997. And Latino students were nearly three times more likely to be retained than white students in 1997."

At the heart of the criticisms of the Vallas plan was a belief that promotion and retention decisions should not be made based solely on any one measure, particularly a single standardized test. Attaching such high stakes to a single assessment narrows the curriculum and dramatically and negatively impacts instruction, particularly for low-achieving students, by resulting in "an unrelenting focus on instruction targeted at boosting [test] scores," Moore said.

In response to these criticisms, a group called the LSC Summit, composed of Moore’s Designs for Change and other reform groups, presented a proposal for an alternative retention plan that relied heavily on "authentic assessments," such as portfolios.

Vallas’s response to this proposal was that, "The reform groups [in Chicago] stood by while Rome burned, when there were no standards or interventions in failing schools. They make money off school reform. They have no credibility — I don’t deal with them."

Looking ahead in Philadelphia

Vallas told the Notebook that Chicago’s experience with grade retention based on test scores helped shaped the policy he has drawn up for Philadelphia. "The most important thing is that when a student has demonstrated outstanding classroom performance, we should cut them some slack when it comes to the test score — but it has to be superior classroom performance," he stated.

As more details about the new promotion policy are rolled out in Philadelphia, educators, parents, students, and advocates can consider some questions: What flexibility will there be with students who don’t meet the test score cutoff? How many students might be retained, and will the policy disproportionately affect students of color? What will be the impact on student achievement at all levels? How will dropout numbers be affected? What supports will be put in place to help low-achieving students meet the testing standard? Will these supports focus heavily on test preparation? What will be the price tag for such a program?

The Chicago experience provides Philadelphians with a rich set of experiences to learn from.

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