Update: Social Promotion in Schools
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JIM LEHRER: Ending social promotion in Chicago schools: Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago updates.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Five years ago, Chicago adopted a policy that called for not promoting students who scored more than a year below grade level on national tests. That effectively ended a decades-long policy of so-called social promotion, moving students along through grades whether they passed or not. Last week, a Chicago school research group said the retention policy had been a good move. John Easton is the deputy director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research.
JOHN EASTON, Consortium on Chicago School Research: We continue to see positive effects for the students in the year before they take their big tests. These students continue to perform well in school, and more and more students are meeting these cut scores established on the tests.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Under the new retention policy, test scores have steadily moved up. In 1999, 82% of Chicago’s third-, sixth-, and eighth- graders had good enough test scores to pass to the next grade. That’s up from 76% in 1997. The continued rise in Chicago’s test scores has happened at the same time that national reading and math scores have remained flat. School CEO Paul Vallas says it wouldn’t have happened without mandatory summer school for failing students and the threat of being retained.
PAUL VALLAS: The ending of social promotion has been critically important, because there needs to be a consequence for nonperformance. Clearly the threat of summer school and the threat of retention has been a wake-up call to not only students, but also teachers.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But for the students who have been retained since the policy began, the news was not good. The research found that they did no better than a previous group of students who had been socially promoted. In fact, students who were retained in third grade in 1997 were still 14 months behind grade level in reading when they got to the fifth grade, while students who were socially promoted in 1995 were only five months below grade level in reading when they got to the fifth grade. Education researcher Don Moore says this shows that students are being harmed when they are held back. He thinks the retention policy should be stopped.
DON MOORE: It’s unethical, if you know that retention is harmful, to knowingly harm one group of students in order to benefit another. Which parent wants their nine- year-old to be retained and have their life ruined in order to motivate the child beside him to work harder?
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Moore suggests promoting low- achieving students, then giving them intensive special help in the new grade. Vallas doesn’t buy it.
PAUL VALLAS: It’s not being done at the expense of those children. We’re not ignoring the children, the hard-core students who are not showing progress. For those students… those students may need an additional year. We will always have retention. We will always… we will never return to a policy of social promotion, and for one fundamental reason, and that is because it’s had an overwhelming positive effect on the school system.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: He is backed up by his boss, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who has received national plaudits after taking over the management of the schools in 1995.
MAYOR RICHARD DALEY: We’re not going to do that, because in the long run, if we do it… I mean, I’d look great. I’d say, oh, 100% of the kids are promoted, that’s great. But when they get their phony diploma and then they apply for the city colleges and they have a third-grade reading level, everybody looks and says, “what happened here?”
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Despite the recent report, the battle over what works in large urban education systems will continue, especially as other school districts across the country follow Chicago’s lead and end social promotion in their schools as well.