April 07, 2004

Chicago retention studies

The Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago has just released two reports on the "Gate" policy that sets rules for promotion and retention of students in 3rd, 6th, and 8th grade. The reports are all over the newspapers and the slant is that Chicago's policy is a failure.

Chicago Sun Times: Researchers blast policy of flunking kids, by Rosalind Rossi, April 7, 2004.

USA Today: Studies: 'Social promotion' fight didn't help in Chicago, April 7, 2004.

Chicago Tribune: Holding kids back fails too, study says. U. of C. report finds repeating grade no help, by Lori Olszewski, April 7, 2004.

New York Times: Studies in Chicago Fault Holding Back of 3rd Graders, by David M. Herszenhorn, April 7, 2004.

The New York Times writes:

The studies offer the most comprehensive examination to date of a large urban school system that adopted a stringent policy of holding back its lowest-achieving students based on test scores.

If that is true then it is sad. The studies are very limited in scope, although you wouldn't think it from the press reports. There are two reports and they are here:

Ending Social Promotion: Dropout Rates in Chicago after Implementation of the Eighth-Grade Promotion Gate, by Elaine Allensworth, April 2004.

Ending Social Promotion: The effects of retention, by Jenny Nagaoka and Melissa Roderick, April 2004.

The first study has a very narrow focus on drop-out rates. The second study takes a very slightly broader look, but the "effects" indicated in the title are still predominantly the drop-out statistics. The studies can be read as providing a negative assessment, but certainly not of the retention policy comprehensively.

It seems a reasonable hypothesis, one worth investigating, that retention has benefits for the academic achievement of students being retained because they will be placed in a class more in line with their achievement level. The first of the mentioned studies does not address this issue and the second study addresses it peripherally and concludes that the hypothesis doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

In both studies the focus is on drop-out rates (in the first one exclusively, in the second one predominantly), and the studies conclude that retention increases the probability that a student will drop out (this is by comparing a cohort that is retained with a cohort of similarly poor achievement that is not retained). Well, duh, I say. If two students of equal achievement level and equal age are placed in a situation where one is looking ahead to three more years of school and the other to four more years of school, the second one may well have better reasons to drop out, and in any case has an extra year to make that choice.

The studies do not seek to answer the question if the threat of retention offers motivation to perform better, and they do not ask if a retention policy benefits the students that are promoted by, perhaps, creating somewhat more homogeneous classrooms. Lots of other questions are not addressed.

Take away the pretensions of these studies and take away the overblown reporting, and one is left with the observation that low-achieving students are likely to remain low-achieving under Chicago's policies, both past and present. Well, that is a challenge for Chicago, but not necessarily an indictment of either their past or present policies. As a researcher one might just want to look beyond the drop-out rates and focus instead on what is taught and learned. Too bad that the Consortium on Chicago School Research didn't think that question very much worthy of their attention.

Posted by Bas Braams at April 7, 2004 05:45 PM

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