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Ending Social Promotion -- Does It Work in Chicago?

As policy makers look for ways to fix the nation's ailing schools, many eyes focus on Chicago's four-year-old effort to end social promotion. Although more students pass the city's standardized tests, half the students who are retained continue to struggle. Nearly a third of the students who repeat a grade drop out when they turn 16.

An independent research consortium studying the Chicago decision to end social promotion, which was aimed at helping students not working at grade level, reports a mixed bag of news. Although more than half the students who spend an extra year in the same grade and attend summer school improve their scores on standardized tests, the remaining students held back continue to struggle.

In some ways, ending social promotion seems to be working, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Their report, Update: Ending Social Promotion, states that the number of students who pass the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), the standardized test the city's schools use, has increased. The reasons are complex, and the consortium's research points to a variety of factors that contribute to the improvement in passing rates.

  • More students are being held back in earlier grades.
  • Fewer students are at-risk in grades six and eight.
  • Students who are identified as at risk get extra help after school and during the summer.
  • The Summer Bridge Program, an intensive summer school program, has been effective. Students seem to retain what they learn, and many score better on standardized tests.

The bottom line is an overall improvement in test scores and passing rates.


One finding surprised the researchers -- students held back in the early grades -- kindergarten through grade two -- were more able as third graders to meet the minimum ITBS score cutoff in 1999. The number of children being retained in kindergarten through second grade began to increase in 1996 and has continued to do so. For example, in 1999, 6.6 percent of first graders repeated the grade. In 1992, that figure was 3.9 percent.

Another positive finding is that Chicago's Summer Bridge Program seems to work, said John Q. Easton, deputy director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. "Summer Bridge is very effective," Easton told Education World. "The effects appear to be enduring, and the students don't seem to lose what they learned."


From the Education World Archives

Read more about the social promotion policies of three urban cities in Promotion Policies Modified: One Size Doesn't Fit All, an Education World article from August 2000.

The news is not all good, Easton said. "Many retained kids aren't doing better," he said. "Although not in the report, we question whether retained kids were being hurt by the [end of social promotion]," he said. Only slightly more than half the students who repeated a grade and attended summer school two years in a row were able to meet the ITBS cutoffs. Students in certain grades must pass the ITBS for promotion through the Chicago system.

The researchers found that in 1998, about 38 percent of the eighth graders sent to the district's Transition Centers -- alternative schools for students who turn 15 before graduating from eighth grade -- were still unable to raise their scores to meet the promotion cutoff after being retained and attending summer school again this August.

The consortium also found that many retained students don't do any better than those students who won social promotions do. The researchers compared ITBS scores of students held back with those who received waivers and were promoted in 1997. Their scores were about the same.

Another consequence of the Chicago policy is that a third of the grade-three students retained in second grade were held back again in 1999. They also found that about 20 percent of children held back in the first and second grades are held back again in the third grade.

The consortium characterized this trend as troubling. "Experiencing two retentions by third grade means that these students, by definition, will be unable to graduate from eighth grade because they will turn 15 in the seventh grade and will have to go to Transition Centers [per Chicago policy]," the report stated.

Easton also questioned the value of the ITBS for young kids significantly behind classmates. "The test scores are so low that [the test] picks up only the fact that [students] aren't reading," Easton said. "But it tells us nothing else about their learning."


Another downside of the Chicago policy is that nearly a third of the students who repeat a grade or attend an alternative school drop out when they reach age 16. Many of those kids haven't completed eighth grade.

It doesn't appear that the promotion policy has adversely affected overall dropout rates, however. "Our dropout rate has gone down over the past three years," said Philip Hansen, chief accountability officer. The current dropout rate is 13.9 percent, down from 15.3 percent in the 1997-1998 school year. Hansen said the school system keeps a close eye on dropout rates because most previous research indicates that dropout rates rise among students who are retained. Although total dropout rates have declined, there has been an increase in the number of students dropping out in earlier grades.


"What we've done is to look at those kids [who are not performing better and dropping out earlier]," Hansen told Education World. "Many of them are foster children, many are missing tests, are in and out of the system, have poor attendance, and change from one school to another. These kids would not benefit so much from remedial programs [which provide after school and summer school] because they miss so much school and they don't have that consistency. It's tough going."

Chicago schools have appealed to Chicago social service agencies for help in reaching those students the school system hasn't helped, Hansen said. "We need to develop an educational program that will help them when they are in school," he said.


The consortium's findings do not include all Chicago students because Chicago doesn't include all ITBS scores in its accountability system. Nearly a third of the scores of third graders are excluded. Most of those students receive waivers because they are English learners or special education students.

In fact, a declining number of students have been included in the city's accountability system since 1992, according to Annual CPS Test Trend Review, 1999, another study conducted by the consortium.

In 1992, about 82 percent of the students were included in the public reporting of the ITBS. In 1999, the percentage of students included was down to 73.9 percent.

"The changing exclusion rates make it difficult to draw accurate judgments about school improvement and student progress in many schools, as well as across the system as a whole," the report states.

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