Academic journal article Education Next

Educators and Students Speak: Those Closest to the Action like the Retention Policy

Academic journal article Education Next

Educators and Students Speak: Those Closest to the Action like the Retention Policy

Article excerpt

Despite mixed reviews from many educators--and some researchers--Chicago's policy to end social promotion has turned out to be a popular program. Surprisingly, perhaps, its most avid fans are the people most affected by it: teachers and students. The Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR), an independent research group founded in 1990, has asked many questions about this pioneering education reform. Among them: Does retention improve academic outcomes? What are untoward--and unforeseen--side effects? Did it contribute to test-score gains? Did high-stakes testing policies produce only one-time impacts on behavior or are there long-term impacts? One of the more interesting questions the CCSR asked was, Did high-stakes accountability cause the teachers, parents, and students of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to change their behavior in ways that would lead to higher achievement, or does the evidence suggest that the CPS's initiatives resulted in simply more focus on testing?

Chicago's ending of social promotion was intended to make educators pay more attention to the lowest-performing students, encourage parents to become more involved in their children's education, and send strong messages to students that achievement mattered. However, opponents of high-stakes testing worried that if students with low skills felt that promotional test cutoffs were out of their reach and that they could not do well on standardized tests based on their past experience, they might react to the pressure of high-stakes testing by becoming less engaged with school (But see Figure 1).

The Study

Fortunately, the Chicago experiment--now in its eighth year--became part of an ongoing study of the city's public school system begun by the CCSR in 1994. Since 1999 the CCSR has published several studies of Chicago's attempt to end social promotion that help to provide an extensive, empirical, and longitudinal look at the impact of the high-stakes testing policies on the Chicago school system. This article is adapted from one of those reports, "Ending Social Promotion: Response of Students and Teachers" (February 2004, CCSR).

Our study drew on four basic sources of data: teacher surveys, principal surveys, student surveys, and personal interviews with a sample of teachers from five low-performing schools. The CCSR began its comprehensive biannual survey of Chicago schools two years before the policy to end social promotion was introduced, polling all CPS teachers, principals, and students in 6th, 8th, and 10th grades about a range of education-related topics, including time spent on test-preparation activities, the content of reading and mathematics instruction, and students' experiences in the classroom. In 1999 and 2001 survey questions were added asking teachers and principals specifically about the new social promotion policy. While no survey data were collected about social promotion per se before 1999, the biannual survey begun in 1994 served to monitor changes in teachers' reports of their teaching behavior and students' reports of their classroom experiences before and after the program was rolled out.

Of the 16,895 elementary school teachers in the system, 7,900, about 47 percent, responded to the survey in 1999 (see Figure 2). In addition, some 315 of 450 principals responded to the 1999 survey (see Figure 3); 30,000 students (about 50 percent of all 6th and 8th graders) also responded. Response rates in 1994, 1997, and 2001 were similar. There was no evidence of response bias at the school level: the proportion of respondent teachers in low-income, minority, and low-performing schools was the same as in the entire CPS system.

In addition to the survey data collected, in-depth interviews were conducted with 43 teachers who taught in the promotion-gate grades (3rd, 6th, and 8th, where students faced their test-score Rubicons) at five K-8 schools in the system. These five schools were located in neighborhoods with some of the highest retention rates in the city (after the promotion policy took effect), and they had large percentages of minority and poor students. …

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