Almost a fourth of the 2,025 8th-graders who failed the exit exam at the end of the summer Bridge Program got waivers that sent them on to high school anyway.

The 460 waivers were requested by principals and approved by regional offices based on students’ overall academic performance last school year.

The 1,565 8th-graders who were retained will be retested in January and, if their scores exceed the threshold, will then move on to high school, says Blondean Davis, director of the Office of Schools and Regions.(The exit exam is the reading portion of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.)

With the retest in mind, schools are scurrying to set up programs that will bring the students up to academic par and mend the bruised egos brought on by being held back.

Sixteen schools have 10 or more students slated to repeat 8th grade; middle schools are among the hardest hit.

Topping the list is Anderson Community Academy in Chicago Lawn, which has an enrollment of some 800 7th- and 8th-graders. Out of 175 students sent to the Bridge Program, 67 were held back, reports Principal Helen Johnson. As Catalyst went to press, 52 had re-enrolled, and staff were trying to track down the remaining 15.

Anderson’s 8th-grade classes will swell by as many as five students each, going from an average of 28 to 33, Johnson says. She has asked central office for an additional teacher, with a specialty in reading, to provide extra instruction for the students.

At Michele Clark Middle School in Austin, 20 of 85 Bridge students were retained, and Principal Marietta Beverly has also asked for an additional teacher. Along with reading and math instruction, the teacher will spend one period each day counseling students about any problems they face in their daily lives.

And at Ericson Elementary in East Garfield Park, a local school council member with a background in psychology and social work will run self-esteem classes three times a week for the 13 students who were not promoted. “They have nothing to be ashamed of,” says Principal Mary Jo Woolfolk. “They got caught unprepared.” Students will also get extra help in reading and math.

The Reform Board’s tough stand on promotion apparently is having a ripple effect beyond the schools, too. Flyers touting after-school tutoring offered by Ada S. McKinley Educational Services have been posted throughout the Near South Side; the flyers advertise tutoring for 6th-, 7th- and 8th-graders in reading and writing—as well as tutoring aimed specifically at raising Iowa scores.

Already, the organization has seen a significant jump in registration. “People have been knocking on our door left and right,” says Antoinette McConnell, a McKinley reading specialist who heads up the program. “Before we could send out recruiters, people were calling us up.”

While applauding the promotion policy as an overdue wake-up call for both students and parents, some principals say the first crop of Bridge students got mixed signals as the program got underway.

It was not until several weeks into the program that Chief Executive Office Paul Vallas made clear that test scores would determine whether or not students went on to high school. By that time, 8th-grade graduation ceremonies were long over, and principals—who say they acted under the direction of central office—had let students slated to enter the Bridge program go through the ceremonies anyway. The students were to receive their diplomas in August, after Bridge was over.

Meanwhile, until Vallas’ announcement, students, parents and teachers all had the impression that, with good attendance and good work, Bridge students would go on to 9th grade.

“The time is played out for social promotion,” says Woolfolk. But, she adds, “It’s unfair that kids who thought they graduated in June had to be the guinea pigs.”

Says Beverly, “It has been a tremendous emotional strain on the parents and the children.”

Next summer, 3rd- and 6th-graders will be part of the Bridge Program; adding younger students is good news for middle schools, says Johnson, which are hard-pressed to make up for students’ lack of skills in only two years.

Beverly agrees. “The older they are, the more difficult it is to remediate those deficits.”

New promotion policy

Under the board’s new promotion policy, both elementary and high school students can now be held back for having failing grades or poor attendance, as well as low test scores.

This year, 3rd-, 6th- and 8th-graders will not be promoted if they (1) receive a failing grade in reading or math; (2) fall below board-set cutoff scores on the math or reading portions of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills; or (3) have low test scores and more than 20 days of unexcused absences, including absences for out-of-school suspension. Students will be retained unless they improve their performance during Bridge.

In a major shift from current practice, 8th-graders who will be 15 prior to Dec. 1 will not be sent directly to high school because of their age, says Davis. (This fall, some 1,300 older 8th-graders failed the Bridge exit exam but were promoted anyway.)

Instead, these students will be assigned to one of six regional transitional centers, housed in high schools, for at least one semester. The following January, they will retake the Iowa and, if they raise their scores, will go to regular high schools.

“We feel we need to use different strategies with these students,” explains Davis. The centers are still in the planning stage, she adds, but will provide instruction in the core curriculum (reading, math, science and social studies) as well as an extra hour each day of more intensive instruction in reading, math and study skills.

Under the previous Board of Education, the promotion policy specifically stated that students should not be held back only because of low scores.

In high schools, freshmen and sophomores who fail any core course (English, math, science or social studies) or have more than 20 unexcused absences must enroll in summer school. Additionally, 9th-graders who score 8.0 (equivalent to the beginning of 8th grade) or below on the reading or math portion of the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency must bring up their scores over the summer.

Elementary and high schools must now notify parents in writing if their child is to receive a failing grade, has posted low scores on standardized tests or has more than 10 unexcused absences. Principals can still request waivers for students.

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