Chicago Research Criticizes Retention, Test-Driven “Improvement”

K-12 Testing

Chicago’s test-based grade retention program has been repeatedly criticized in reports by the Consortium on Chicago School Research and, often more pointedly, by advocacy groups such as Designs for Change (see Examiner, Fall 2000). Several new Consortium reports now reinforce the message that grade retention is an educational failure that should be eliminated from school practice in all but the most exceptional cases.


Chicago Public Schools (CPS) relied on test results to drive changes in schools. Careful research by the Consortium shows that real learning failed to improve as a result of the intensified pressure to boost scores. This complements other evidence demonstrating the flaws of test-driven “reform,” particularly the complete failure of “reconstituting” Chicago schools.


Retention Demolished

Using a 1995 state law that centralized control over Chicago schools, School Reform Board President Gery Chico and Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas (now superintendent in Philadelphia) implemented a high-stakes testing regime. Promotion from grades 3, 6 and 8 was made contingent on scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS), and schools faced “reconstitution” for low scores. This was a violation of the test manufacturer’s policies regarding proper test use, which warned against reliance on exam scores to make high-stakes educational decisions (see Examiner, 2000). Nonetheless, this test-based model became a nationally praised example of urban “school reform.”


Tens of thousands of children, disproportionately African American, Latino and low-income, were retained in grade. The most recent Consortium reports confirm that grade retention did not help and often hurt the students who were retained. Jenny Nagaoka and Melissa Roderick found that:


• After several years, retained students do not have higher achievement than comparable low-achieving students who are promoted. For third graders, “we find little evidence that students who were retained did better than their low-achieving counterparts who were promoted... In the sixth grade, the question is how much did retention hurt...[R]etention...was associated with a negative growth in achievement, with that effect being larger two years after the gate grade.”


• Many retained students were placed in special education and others retained twice in the same grade; in both cases, students did not benefit. • Low achieving retained students did not close the gaps with higher achieving students. The lowest achievers “experienced a deterioration in their relative performance after retention.”


The researchers concluded: “Did retaining these low achieving students help? The answer to this question is definitively no.” Nor was there improvement in test scores of other students, who retention supporters say could be motivated by fear of retention. Commenting on the Consortium reports, Don Moore of Designs for Change argued that damaging thousands of children in hopes that others will work harder is “unethical.”


Another consortium study, by Elaine Allensworth, confirmed that retained students are more likely to drop out. For students retained in grade 8, dropout rates “were 13 percentage points higher than among similar non-retained students - 57 percent, compared to 44 percent, which is a 29 percent increase in the likelihood of dropping out.” For students already overage at grade 8 (having been retained at least once before) who were retained again in grade 8, the dropout rate escalated to 78 percent: only one in five graduated.


Test-Based Reform Fails

Chicago Public Schools have repeatedly touted rising test scores as a benefit of high-stakes testing. However, independent research consistently finds that attaching high stakes to tests is similar to holding a match to a thermostat. The numbers say the room is getting warmer, but it is not. Indeed, over time, the room will get colder while the tricked thermostat reports ever-higher readings.


Researcher Tony Bryk of the Consortium concludes that most of the ostensible gains under Chicago’s centralized, test-based accountability were simply inflation. Bryk outlined a series of factors that caused test scores to rise without any real gain in student achievement.


These include:
1. Retained students’ scores were included with the grade they were repeating, thus boosting reported average scores from two years’ of classes: the grade they were repeating, due to more familiarity with the tested materials; and the grade from which they had been held back because their projected low scores were eliminated.
2. CPS changed the rules to exclude increasing numbers of students with limited English proficiency. This may have been a reasonable educational policy, but it also caused reported scores to rise.
3. African-American enrollment declined while Latino enrollment grew; Latinos post higher average test scores than blacks in Chicago.
4. More children were referred to special education, and their scores were not included.
5. CPS moved the testing date to later in the year without adjusting for the change, giving scores an artificial boost from increased preparation time.
6. Chicago kept using the same three forms of the ITBS while some children were tested up to five times over 15 months. Familiarity with the test artificially boosts scores.
Bryk explains that virtually all the real gains on ITBS scores in the test-based accountability program occurred in 1997: “This suggests that the CPS experienced a one-time burst in student learning in the year that the high-stakes accountability was announced. However [in subsequent years]... no further productivity improvements were recognized. In fact, the annual learning gains declined in some post-1997 [years].” The analysis did not include the additional effects that teaching to the test has on artificially boosting scores.


Bryk also found that African-American and Latino students fared no better than whites under test-based accountability. If the goals of school reform are to improve overall teaching and learning while closing academic achievement gaps, test-based accountability in Chicago has been a failure.


• Allensworth, E. April 2004. Ending Social Promotion: Dropout Rates in Chicago after Implementation of the Eighth-Grade Promotion Gate. Consortium on Chicago School Research. Online at
• Bryk, T. 2003. “No Child Left Behind, Chicago-Style.” In Peterson, P. W., and West, M. The Politics and Practice of School Accountability. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, pp. 242-268.
• Moore, D. Comment Highlights.
• Nagaoka, J., and Roderick, M. April 2004. Ending Social Promotion: The Effects of Retention. Consortium on Chicago School Research. Online at