CPS students scored better than predicted this past year on the new and tougher statewide tests used to decide promotion, schools officials said.

But that news, coupled with a revised district promotion policy, means that far fewer students are in now summer school than last year.

“This is interesting in a good way,” said Annette Gurley, CPS’s chief of teaching and learning, in a phone interview Wednesday. “The NWEA is a much more rigorous assessment than the ISAT […]. We actually thought we’d have fewer students scoring at or above the 24th percentile.”

With that predicted decline in mind, last fall CPS officials unveiled a new system that uses test cut scores and grades to determine promotions for third-, sixth- and eighth-grade students. They expected that enrollment in the district’s Summer Bridge program wouldn’t change much under the redesigned promotion policy.

Instead, enrollment fell from some 14,000 last summer to about 10,000 today – a nearly 29-percent drop from one year to the next.

The enrollment drop also means big savings for CPS. Last year the district spent about $12.3 million on Summer Bridge. This year, it’ll spend an estimated $10.7 million.

Gurley credited schools’ use of web-based assessment programs for the better-than-expected scores. Most schools have purchased at least one a variety of expensive data-driven programs that allow teachers to monitor students’ grasp of content in real time – and focus attention on those who most need the help.

Catalyst Chicago learned of the decline in summer school enrollment from principals, teachers and counselors who said they were surprised by the low number of students required to attend summer school. One educator even said that for the first time in at least six years, none of her school’s students went to summer school.

The drop in enrollment caused some concern that students are missing out on extra help they need, although district officials assure that targeted supports are on the way for students who would have gone to summer school under last year’s policy.

Meanwhile, opponents of high-stakes testing criticized the new policy for depending too much on the results of a single test to decide something as critical as promotion.

“The exact numbers of how many kids they sent off to summer school isn’t the big issue,” says Cassie Cresswell, who leads the anti-testing group, More Than a Score. “Our issue is with using a test score to determine everything. We’re concerned with how they make the decision about whether a kid should or shouldn’t go to summer school.”

Shift to new tests aligned to Common Core

Last fall, the Board of Education changed its promotion policy as part of the district’s shift from the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) to the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) assessments, which are aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Charter schools are not required to follow the district’s promotion policy, unlike neighborhood and contract schools, officials said.

Previously, students needed to score at or above the 24th national percentile on the portion of the ISAT known as the SAT10, in addition to getting a C or above in reading and math, in order to get promoted. Last year, Gurley said, 80.1 percent of students met both requirements and moved onto the next grade without going to the district’s Summer Bridge program. Students who were chronically truant — that is, missed at least nine school days without a valid excuse — were also sent to summer school.

Under the new policy, students who score at the 24th national percentile or higher on the NWEA are promoted automatically – unless they’re outright failing reading or math. This means students who got Ds in those subject areas but fared well enough on the test can move on to the next grade without summer school. This year, 80.1 percent of students fell into this category – exactly the same as last year despite the different test and lower grade requirements. CPS also dropped the attendance requirement under the new policy.

On Wednesday afternoon, district officials could not provide Catalyst with the percentage of students who scored at or above the 24th national percentile on the NWEA this year, regardless of their grades, or comparable statistics from last year.

One eighth-grade math teacher who asked not to be identified told Catalyst she had a handful of students who earned Ds in her class but scored just above the 24th percentile cut score.

 “I told them they should consider themselves very lucky because they tested well,” she said. “Even though they got Ds they are now going to high school, though in previous years these same students would have had to go to summer school.”

Meanwhile, students who scored between the 11th and 23rd percentile on the test avoid summer school if they have a C or higher in reading and math. Gurley said an additional 5.6 percent of students were in this group.

The only students automatically sent to summer school, regardless of their grades, are those who score at or below the 10th percentile on the NWEA.

One principal who asked not to be identified said he was not expecting the drop in summer school enrollment he saw this year and worries about some of his struggling students. Part of the reason is because he didn’t realize that students’ scores on the NWEA from the 2012-13 school year – which Gurley said students took even though the test wasn’t used for promoting purposes that year — could also be used to determine promotion this year. Under both the new and old promotion policies, CPS uses students’ best test scores from the previous two years in determining whether they move on to the next grade.

“Are they missing out? Yeah, I think so,” the principal said. “All of our kids need the extra support.”

Gurley said targeted help is on the way for students who, for different reasons, avoided summer school under the new district policy. This summer, CPS will send letters to principals that identify both the students who got Ds but scored at or above the 24th percentile on the NWEA – and those with good grades but lower scores.

Principals will be asked to provide social-emotional support for those in the first group, such as special one-on-one attention from an adult. Those in the second group might get more traditional academic support, such as tutoring, Gurley explained.

Summer school on the decline nationally

Enrollment in the Summer Bridge program has been falling steadily since 1996, when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley instituted a tough promotion policy as a way to end social promotion. (Catalyst reported on the topic of social promotion in 2011).

At first, the district sent more than 20,000 students to required summer school each year. But due to outside pressure, including a major 2004 study by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research that showed the harmful effects of retention, CPS began adjusting the policy to make it easier for students to pass through to the next grade.

Chicago isn’t the only city that saw a significant drop in summer school enrollment due to a change in the promotion policy. In New York City, some 25 percent fewer students were sent to summer school this year after the district banned the use of state test scores as a major factor in promotion decisions, according to a recent Chalkbeat New York report. The new policy gives principals more discretion about who should go to summer school.

At the time the city changed its promotion policy, NYC officials said they didn’t think enrollment figures would change. Their projections, it turned out, were simply wrong.

Cresswell and other anti-testing advocates say they wish the district had also placed less emphasis on tests when developing the promotion policy last year. Instead, said Julie Woestethoff, who heads the organization Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), they want CPS to better identify struggling students during the school year to give them the additional support they need, rather than telling them at year’s end that they must go to summer school or else be held back.

“Our proposal has been to go back to using the report card,” Woestehoff said. “If we continue to not trust teachers’ grades, then why do we continue to waste people’s time with report cards?” 

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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