At last, the almighty Iowa Tests of Basic Skills will have to share the academic stage with the real work of students: things like showing up for class, doing homework, behaving well, completing assignments, learning what’s being taught. As Catalyst goes to press, the Chicago Board of Education is poised to amend its promotion policy to make room for teacher judgment and student grades, not just test scores.

To guard against grade inflation, the board is dispatching monitors to make sure that schools, particularly low-scoring ones, aren’t giving too many A’s and B’s. In the short run, that could keep schools from slacking off. In the long run, though, it will only defeat the board’s stated goal of teaching all students to high standards. If the board is serious about that goal, all students should have the opportunity to get A’s and B’s. Otherwise, the school system is simply continuing the student sorting game that historically has blocked advancement for poor and minority children.

What would serve both purposes, keeping schools from slacking off and opening doors for kids, would be to show them all what A, B, C and D work looks like—that is, set standards that are grounded in real work, not traditional and often arbitrary notions about proper grade distribution. In other words, take a page from the book of “authentic assessment” enthusiasts who use “rubrics,” or scoring guides, to judge students’ writing, speeches, projects and other work. By compiling portfolios of student work, teachers can justify their grades with students, parents and supervisors alike.

For some students, though, the quality of their work still won’t count. Students scoring exceptionally low on the Iowa tests in 3rd, 6th and 8th grades will still be required to repeat a grade—even though research repeatedly has shown that holding kids back typically does more harm than good. Chicago has tried mightily to break this pattern but, so far, has failed. It’s time to try out the alternative: allow low-scoring students to be promoted at the end of summer school and give them special help in the next grade. While Chicago has permitted some low-scoring students to pass with “waivers,” it has not required that schools provide continuing special help. The Consortium on Chicago School Research has found that these marginal students tend to founder and need extra attention to stay on course.

The School Board could foster a transition to this approach by inviting schools to submit proposals for how they would help their lowest-scoring students while keeping them with their natural classmates. It could pay for the most promising ideas with the money it would save by not putting students through the same grade two or three times. Now that the notion of accountability has taken hold in the system, schools deserve a chance to do it their way, and the board could share the lessons learned. As Catalyst writer Grant Pick reports, local opponents of student retention have vowed to organize protests at schools with the highest retention rates. To be persuasive, they also will need to outline in detail what those schools would do instead and what it would cost.


Our editorial advisory board welcomes five new members: Susan Kajiwara-Ansai, a Golden Apple award-winning teacher who is the literacy coordinator for the North Lawndale Learning Community; Joan Forte, an assistant principal who has worked at Manley and DuSable high schools; Barbara Garner, chair of the local school council at Robeson High School; Jacqueline Moore, a board member of the Community Renewal Society; and William Schubert, a education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he also coordinates graduate curriculum studies.

And we bid farewell to six others who have shared their knowledge and ideas with Catalyst staff. Thank you, Michael Klonsky, who served two years as board chair, and Beverly Cross, James Hammonds, Robert Keeley, Clara Pate and Amanda Rivera.

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