CPS officials are considering a startling overhaul of the district’s student promotion policy, limiting the use of retention for elementary school students or getting rid of it altogether.

In 1996, CPS won national headlines and an endorsement from then-President Bill Clinton for its program to end so-called “social promotion,” which it has quietly scaled back over the years.

District officials have been meeting with community groups to discuss two proposals: One would completely eliminate retention, although students who receive grades of “D” or below in reading or math would be referred to summer school. The second would severely limit the use of retention, and students could be held back only once in grades 1 to 8.

It’s unclear what role, if any, test scores would have in a new policy.

CPS officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a statement acknowledged that they are “evaluating potential improvements” to the policy and soliciting feedback from community members, teachers and school leaders.

“Upon conclusion of this community feedback process, CPS will then evaluate ways to improve the existing policy with a sole objective of improving outcomes for students,” according to the statement.

Under both CPS proposals, students who are lagging behind would get additional supports during the school year and still be required to go through summer school.

District officials discussed the proposed changes earlier this summer with members of the Hyde Park Community Action Council (CAC), which stressed its support for removing test scores from the promotion policy, according to a report in the Hyde Park Herald

It’s unclear when the proposals could reach the Board of Education for a vote, and CAC members say they were told that the district’s recent change in leadership has slowed the process. Still, a new policy could be in place by the 2016-2017 school year.

“Nothing is set in stone,” Tony Howard told the Hyde Park CAC, the Herald reported. Howard is the executive director of the CPS Office of Policy and Procedures, Education and Sports. “We want to have conversations about this before drafting anything.”

The original CPS retention policy set test score requirements for promotion after 3rd-, 6th-, and 8th– grades. In the first year of implementation, nearly 9,000 students were retained in grade. That number has since dropped by more than half, with just over 3,700 students in those benchmark grades retained last summer.

The policy was a signature initiative of the administration of former Mayor Richard M. Daley and former CPS CEO Paul Vallas, who adopted it despite consistent research showing that grade retention generally did not help the students academically and, in fact, made it more likely they would drop out.

In addition, retention fell disproportionately on the shoulders of black boys. (Catalyst has written extensively about the district’s promotion policy, notably in 2011 and in in 1998.)

Studies of the CPS experience by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research echoed the findings elsewhere. In their wake, the tough promotion policy started losing its teeth, and fewer and fewer students were held back.

Elaine Allensworth, the Lewis-Sebring director of the Consortium, says she’s not surprised CPS is rethinking its promotion policy.

“The biggest thing is: when students get held back, what are the consequences? Sometimes the short term can look good: Suddenly they’ve had an extra year, they may be older kids in the class, and are not as far behind,” she says. “But when they get to high school it becomes a big problem […] A lot of students are two years behind because they’ve been held back twice. And if you have to stay in high school until you’re 20, at that point it just gets weird.”

Because of the research, large urban school district across the country have been tweaking their promotion policies to include more than just test scores — and to allow more students to pass. For example, last year New York City school officials reduced the influence of test scores on grade promotion, which led to a sharp drop in the number of students being held back, according to Chalkbeat New York.

In Chicago, two years ago the district changed the test on which promotion decisions are based and lowered the cut scores necessary to pass without going to summer school. At the same time CPS gave students with good grades but low test scores the opportunity to skip summer school. As a result, summer school participation dropped 30 percent.

Most students who attend summer school are promoted at the end of it, according to CPS. And just 5 percent of students in benchmark grades  were retained last year.

One member of the Hyde Park CAC who sat through the CPS presentation on the proposed changes says he hope changes to the retention policy come with additional financial and teaching resources for schools to identify and support students who are falling behind.

“Once a child has fallen behind, there’s not a lot of options available to help them,” says Katie Gruber, a CAC member and parent of two students at Ray Elementary in Hyde Park. “I’m all in favor of using retention as a last resort. We need to absolutely explore every option of summer school and additional support … but to entirely remove it as an option seems hasty to me. I wish there were a lot more resources and more differentiated instruction available to kids.”

Margarita Vasquez, whose daughter was retained two years ago at an elementary school in Belmont Cragin, worries about the long-term impact of retention. Her daughter went to summer school last summer but did not meet the requirements to pass, and had to repeat 3rd grade last year.

“She tells me that all of her friends are now a year ahead of her, and it’s really hard on her,” says Vasquez, who wishes the promotion policy was less reliant on test scores. “Some students get very stressed out and forget everything when it comes time to take the test.”

Melissa Sanchez

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at msanchez@chicagoreporter.com and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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