Pass or Fail: Effective Retention Polices – The Chicago Case

In this multi-part series, I provide a dissection of the phenomenon of retention and social promotion. Also, I describe the many different methods that would improve student instruction in classrooms and eliminate the need for retention and social promotion if combined effectively.

While reading this series, periodically ask yourself this question: Why are educators, parents and the American public complicit in a practice that does demonstrable harm to children and the competitive future of the country?

The goal of retention policies is to ensure that students who move to the next level of learning have mastered the required knowledge and skills. The accompanying exemptions and alternative paths surely beg the question: do retention and the various related supported elements thwart social promotion?

The problem is simple: some children may progress from grade to grade without reaching state required benchmarks. Most states and school districts worry about the number of students who are retained without alternative avenues for promotion being made available. The consensus, spoken or not, is that retention does very little to solve the underlying problem of retention and social promotion.

The retention policy path in Chicago, for instance, provides an overt example of the challenges associated with the implementation of retention policies, and how social promotion can creep into well-intended policies meant to discontinue the practice.

The Chicago Public School System (CPS) developed a retention policy where none existed at the state level. CPS believed that a retention policy would result in students working harder, receiving more attention from parents with respect to their schooling, and experiencing more focus from teachers when at risk for retention.

Initiated in 1996, the CPS policy required students in the third, sixth, and eighth grades to reach specified scores on standardized tests for reading and mathematics, or face retention. The policy also included a summer school attendance requirement for students – the top method for avoiding retention and a transition program designed to improve reading skills of eighth-grade students. The goal was to ensure that upon entering high school, students would be able to read high school level textbooks. By 2011, the retention rate had shrunk from 15 percent (at the time the policy was initiated) to 4 percent.

However, reduced retention rates have reportedly not been the result of improved achievement among students. Both implementation and structural components of the policy have weakened over the years, which in effect compromised the policy’s original intent. CPS did not have effective means to enforce consequences for children who were not meeting policy promotion requirements. Students who were obligated to pass summer school to avoid retention were allowed to enter the next highest grade, without attending summer classes. High school freshmen were required to pass all freshmen level classes, however, and to achieve certain scores on standardized tests, or attend summer school to escape retention. Following later adjustments, all students who did not meet the freshman promotion requirements after their summer school attendance went into a class for failing students when they returned to school in the fall.

Given that summer school was an instrumental component of the CPS’s policy, there was concern that if too many students were scheduled for retention, the number of summer school slots would be insufficient to handle the volume of students required to attend. The number of students performing below grade level was already substantial at the inception of the policy. Setting unattainable expectations for performance on standardized tests would simply result in an imbalance in the number of students required to attend summer school and slots available to accommodate them. Ultimately, the CPS made it easier for students to avoid retention despite poor academic performance. Achievement test scores needed for promotion were lowered so that more students were eligible to move ahead.

In the end, summer school and other interventions outlined in the CPS retention policy proved insufficient to support the number of children affected – which was somewhat inevitable, based on early number projections. Further disaster followed, with budget cuts that reduced the impact of the policy even further. As a result of the CPS budget cuts, summer schools were in session for fewer days. Summer school class sizes also increased, undermining the potential for teachers to give proper attention to students. Budget cuts also meant a redistribution of funds initially slated to add additional teachers to schools with high numbers of retained students. Various tutoring programs were either cut or discontinued through the process. As is the case with many retention policies today, educators went ahead and promoted students if the alternative was retention for more than one year.

Social promotion was not the primary problem facing CPS, though. Replacing social promotion with retention did not address the paramount and critical objective of the system: to increase learning among more students.

The CPS retention program is a good example of noble intentions gone awry. What can we learn and apply from the CPS initiative moving forward?

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