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News

Researchers blast policy of flunking kids

University Of Chicago : 07 April, 2006  (Technical Article)
Chicago's policy of making failing students repeat a grade didn't help kids and should be scrapped, University of Chicago researchers said, but school officials insisted their 'commonsense'' approach has benefited the entire system.
Two studies released by the University of Chicago prompted dueling press conferences Tuesday over whether the Chicago public schools should continue flunking kids, the most controversial part of its nationally watched crackdown on social promotion.

'We should scrap what we're doing and go back to the drawing board,'' said Melissa Roderick, who joined co-researchers Jenny Nagaoka and Elaine Allensworth of the U. of C.'s Consortium on Chicago School Research to explain their studies. 'Retention should absolutely be a last resort.''

Countered Schools CEO Arne Duncan: 'Common sense, and even some research by the consortium, tells you that ending social promotions contributed to higher test scores and the lower dropout rates [in] the last eight years.''

Retention didn't help third-graders; it hurt sixth-graders, and it made eighth-graders far more likely to drop out, the studies of the early years of the policy found. Kids who repeated two grades were in high peril of dropping out by age 19, with 78 percent doing so, one study found.

In addition, researchers said, retained kids were three to six times more likely to wind up in special education, where they struggled more, compared to similar low-scoring kids promoted during the same time frame.

However, Chicago officials say they've since reduced special education referrals.

Roderick, a former top adviser to Duncan, said she advised him to change the policy before he softened it last month. She insisted the system 'abandoned'' kids once they were retained and didn't do enough in the early years to prevent their retention in the first place.

But the system will address those concerns by directing more help to kindergarten through third-graders in the 20 to 40 schools with the highest retention rates and offering more help to retained kids, said Chief Educational Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins.

In addition, the policy was tweaked so that math test scores no longer trigger retention, kids can no longer repeat the same grade twice and fewer kids can repeat three different grades, Duncan said. This year, kids only will be retained for low reading scores.

Chicago has been retaining 7,000 to 10,000 kids a year; it's not clear how the changes will trim those numbers.

Duncan insisted retention, and the threat of it, played a critical role in raising the system's test scores, as well as reducing its dropout rate. He pointed to earlier consortium studies indicating the threat of retention triggered better gains among older kids and more focused help from their teachers.

One of Tuesday's studies showed that even though retained kids were more likely to drop out, far more who weren't retained became less likely to drop out, resulting in no overall dropout gain.

However, Donald Moore of Designs for Change said even the new policy 'isn't ethical'' because it still turns retained kids into 'sacrificial lambs.''
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