ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Quantina Washington ranks in the top third of her class at her public high school on the Southwest Side of Chicago. An outgoing, enthusiastic sophomore, she says she likes school and hopes to go on to college.
QUANTINA WASHINGTON: With all the support I have, I believe I'm going to make it.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But when we met Quantina Washington two years ago, it was a different story. She was in summer school, one of the more-than 5,000 eighth- graders who had been told their test scores weren't good enough to graduate. Students in the third, sixth, and eighth grades in Chicago schools whose reading or math scores on national tests are more than a year below grade level are not promoted.
CEO PAUL VALLAS: Our school is great.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas says the three-year-old policy of eliminating so-called social promotions has been at the heart of turning around a once-failing system.
PAUL VALLAS, CEO, Chicago Schools: When you socially promote, you not only hurt the children who are not meeting minimum standards by promoting them to another grade level where they really can't do the work, but you are also hurting the children who are at grade level or above, because you are basically putting those children in a classroom where the teacher is forced to basically lower his or her standards. So the net effect is the child who is behind never gets caught up, and the child who is at grade level or above suffers.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The intensive summer program worked for Washington. Her test scores were high enough to let her celebrate her delayed eighth-grade graduation.
QUANTINA WASHINGTON: I couldn't say anything else but, you know, "Wow, I made it." I made it, and I was very happy and, you know, I was proud to be able to graduate even though it wasn't with all of my classmates.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Two years later, Washington says being held back has changed the way she looks at school.
QUANTINA WASHINGTON: When you get held back, it's something for you to think about, and some changes that are meant to be met. And you just have to work hard and strive. If you really want to pass, and if you really want to go on, you have to strive for what you want.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Washington is the oldest of seven. Her busy mother often shows up at school, usually with a few of the youngest in tow. She was devastated when her daughter missed her eighth-grade graduation. But now she too thinks it was for the best.
LAQUITTA WASHINGTON, Parent: It made her study harder. It made her push forth and make herself a better studier, a better pupil. That's what it has done for her. She sits down to study, and she tries to help her younger siblings with her homework.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Two years ago, third-grader Vrylon Casten was also told she had to go to summer school.
VRYLON CASTEN, Chicago Student: I said, "What? I don't want to go to summer school." And I had to, so I just went.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But summer school didn't bring up Casten's scores, and she had to repeat the third grade. Her scores came up at the end of last year, and she made it into fourth grade this year. She continues to get extra help. She and other at-risk students are in a small class with two teachers.
VRYLON CASTEN: I'm learning more than when I was in third grade.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Because you have two teachers.
VRYLON CASTEN: Mm-hmm.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Chicago has the largest retention program in the nation, with a price tag of $100 million a year. At the end of the school year last June, over 25,000 third, sixth, and eighth-graders were held back -- about 25 percent of the students in those grades. After mandatory summer school, 11,500, or just over 11 percent, were again retained. After a beefed-up fall transition program, the number of children held back dropped to 7,500, a little over 7 percent. Chicago calls the program a success, and so did President Clinton.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: All schools must end social promotion. (Applause) Now, if you doubt this will work, just look at Chicago, which ended social promotion and made summer school mandatory for those who don't master the basics. Math and reading scores are up three years running, with some of the biggest gains in some of the poorest neighborhoods.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Officials in Chicago say retention works because of the additional resources given to children who are held back: Summer school, after-school programs, smaller classes, individual tutors. But there are critics who say no amount of additional resources will make retention work. Professor Ernest House points to a large body of national research that consistently says students who are retained do not achieve better on national tests after a few years, and are much more likely to drop out. House studied New York City's large retention program in the 1980's and found that despite extra resources, the program failed.
ERNEST HOUSE, University of Colorado: New York had more extra teachers and they had smaller classes than Chicago has. They also did summer school routinely. And that wasn't enough to bring these kids -- increase their achievement or bring them up to par. So that I don't see how this is going to work in Chicago either.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: After seeing little improvement from the retained students after three years, New York dropped the program. One reason retention doesn't work, says House, is because it hurts kids emotionally.
ERNEST HOUSE: One of the major speculations-- and some studies have been done-- indicate the kids are stigmatized by being held back. Their peers tease them about being held back. They feel they're dumb, so they are held back in the grade level, and that creates a kind of a stigma which affects how they feel about school.
PATRICIA LANGLEY, Parent: She's always been a star student.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Patricia Langley says that's what happened to her daughter. Langley likes to show off her daughter's work, and says she was always a good student who loved school until the end of sixth grade last year.
PATRICIA LANGLEY: Well, we found out in '98 at the end of the school term that she was being retained because she had missed a fraction of a point on the Iowa test. And so they retained her. She had to go to summer school, and that didn't do any good. She was so traumatized by the whole scenario that when they tested her again, the score was even lower than before, and she spent the whole summer school term miserable and in shock, really.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Langley's daughter, Victoria Vaughn, is still in the sixth grade. When she was tested again after the fall semester, her scores dropped again.
VICTORIA VAUGHN, Chicago Student: I sort of slid off course when I came back to the same grade, but I'm okay now. But it's not as much -- I don't like school as much now as I did then, because I got discouraged.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Vallas insists it would do students like Victoria Vaughn more harm than good to pass them on to the next grade without the necessary skills.
PAUL VALLAS: These advocates of social promotion would rather we graduate children from high school with diplomas that they can't read, with diplomas that cannot get them into any four- year college.
ERNEST HOUSE: I'm not in favor of social promotion. I am in favor of helping the kids. Social promotion doesn't make any sense either -- that is, promoting the kids automatically, regardless of what they do. So I'm not in favor of that. What I'm saying is retaining them doesn't really either. What works is providing them with extra assistance. So passing them on and helping them with extra help, that actually is the solution to the problem.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Much of the extra help Chicago provides comes after kids have been retained, and the critics ask how many times can a child be held back and be expected to succeed? They point to classes like this one, where most of the third graders have failed twice. System wide, more than 1,500 students are repeating grades for the third time. Researcher Susan Davenport has been studying Chicago schools for 15 years.
SUSAN DAVENPORT, Chicago Researcher: In the long run, this is a policy that's going to hurt our kids. It's going to make more kids drop out of high school. It's going to put more kids on the street unprepared for the job market, and unprepared for further education, and we're going to have a lot of 17-year- olds sitting in eighth grade, and 12-year-olds sitting in third grade. How is that possible?
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But Teacher Robin Baxter is more optimistic. She says seven of the eighteen retained students in her class were able to score high enough on tests at the end of the fall semester to move up to fourth grade.
ROBIN BAXTER, Chicago Teacher: Initially I didn't think it was working until after the test, and then I was quite pleased with the students that did transition out. And now, with the smaller classroom, I can hone in on the skills that they are missing. It's a real good program. It's truly working.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It may soon be clear whether or not retention is truly working. University of Chicago Researcher Anthony Bryk has been asked to conduct the first independent, in-depth study of the program.
ANTHONY BRYK, University of Chicago: This will be the most controversial work that the consortium does because the stakes here are real high, not only for Chicago, but nationally. When the President of the United States declares this a success, and then you go about actually analyzing the data, to try to figure out the effects of the program, it's pretty clear that almost no matter what we find and report, someone is not going to like these results.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: First results from Bryk's research should be available this spring. Meanwhile, other major school districts, including Philadelphia with 213,000 students, are planning to institute massive retention programs.