Chicago Retention Policy Still a Failure

K-12 Testing

A follow-up study of Chicago Public School’s (CPS) test-based grade-retention policy by the
Chicago Consortium on School Research (CCSR) shows that retained students still achieve no better than similar non-retained students, while the dropout rate is rising for retained students.


The CCSR report, "Update: Ending Social Promotion," follows up CCSR's previous study on this topic (see Examiner, Winter 1999-2000) by analyzing an additional year's data. To be promoted, CPS students in grades 3, 6, and 8 must attain a minimum score on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) at the end of the regular school year or after summer school. (This policy is being changed, see story, p. ).


The study found that retained students continued to score poorly. Citywide improvements in third grade scores largely resulted from a dramatic increase in retention at grades 1 and 2, which reduced the number of low-scoring students in grade 3. In a separate report extending the Consortium's analysis, Designs for Change (DfC), a Chicago research and advocacy group, found that retention also had increased in grades 4, 5 and 7, impacting test results at grades 6 and 8.


CCSR found an improvement in the percentage of non-retained students who exceeded the minimum score needed for promotion. School officials cite these higher scores as evidence that the fear of retention is motivating students to work harder and score higher.


However, DfC pointed out that the test score gains are highly questionable, since, for example, the school system has repeatedly administered the same three ITBS forms. Form L has been used five times in the past three years. Further, stories of copies of the test circulating in Chicago schools are common. Chicago’s summer school has been widely criticized for its overwhelming focus on teaching to the test, and such teaching has increased dramatically during the regular school year.


The new CCSR report shows again that retention does not work for those who are retained, as retained students showed little gain, despite intensive teaching to the test. Twenty-nine percent of students who were retained at eighth grade in 1997 had dropped out two years later.


The October issue of Substance reported a large decline in high school enrollment from 1995 to 1999, although total CPS enrollment has increased since 1994. Substance charges that perhaps 10,000 students, “most of them from Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods and most of them African- American or Hispanic--have been pushed out of Chicago’s public schools.” In response to similar findings by Designs for Change in 1998, CPS maintained that many high school students transfer out of CPS. That response does not answer the question, why the sudden decrease in high school enrollment starting when the intense testing regime began?


As Melissa Roderick, chief author of the CCSR report, told the American School Board Journal (September, 2000), “This is just a disaster....And it’s just the beginning of a disaster, because now we’re seeing all of these first- and second-graders who are being research says that early grade retention is good for kids.”


Northwestern University researcher Alfred Hess, who is studying Chicago school reform under a contract with CPS, recently asserted, “The tradeoff is between a few kids who might drop out anyway and a great number of students who do better through school as a result of the policy.”


DFC's Don Moore responded, "Even if we accept that the gains are real and that they result from fear, it is unethical to harm one group of children to motivate another group." Further, the number of students benefiting does not greatly exceed the number harmed. DFC’s analysis shows that while an additional 18,000 students exceeded the minimum score for promotion in 1999 as compared with 1995, 11,000 students were retained in 1999.


DFC recommends an end to both retention and social promotion, with the money now being invested in retention being redirected to preventive steps. DFC argues that research clearly indicates that promoting low-achieving students, but giving these students intensive special help, results in larger achievement gains than either retention or social promotion.
-- The CCSR report is available at <>. Comments on the CCSR report by DFC and Professor Robert Hauser of University of Wisconsin are available at <>.