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In Reversal, Chicago Eases Promotions

March 25, 2004 | by DAVID M. HERSZENHORN | New York Times

The Chicago Board of Education voted yesterday to ease some of the strict promotion requirements that have served as a model for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's plan to end social promotion in New York City schools.

The action in Chicago came in anticipation of new research expected to show that Chicago's seven-year effort to end social promotion had not raised test scores for third graders and in most cases resulted in lower test scores for sixth graders.

The Chicago board, which is appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley, voted 5 to 0 to end the use of math scores as a trigger for holding students back. The board also changed the policy so that no student can repeat the same grade more than once and no student can be held back more than twice between kindergarten and the eighth grade. Chicago's promotion rules, among the toughest in the nation, are enforced in the third, sixth and eighth grades.

Chicago is the third-largest school system in the country, with 600 schools and 434,000 students, and its effort to end social promotion, the practice of letting failing students advance to the next grade, has drawn enormous attention. Yesterday's changes came less than two weeks before the release of two major studies by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, a nonprofit group that has closely studied the policy's impact.

Chicago school officials, including Arne Duncan, the system's chief executive, had been briefed on the studies, including initial reports of raw data and advance drafts of the reports about a month ago. And the Chicago Sun-Times printed excerpts yesterday of the board's own synopsis of the consortium's findings, which stated that the "desired increase in academic growth of struggling students is not taking place."

The studies, and Chicago's experience in general, could have implications for New York City, the nation's largest school system, and Mr. Bloomberg's strict new promotion rules for third graders. A majority of the city's Panel for Educational Policy had opposed the plan. To get it approved last week, the mayor and the Staten Island borough president, James P. Molinaro, teamed up to fire and replace three panel members, which swung the vote.

Melissa Roderick, a lead author of the one of the consortium's studies, said that Chicago's move to pre-empt the release of her report had put her in an awkward position of discussing the board's actions without divulging the specifics of her findings. She did, however, confirm that the board's synopsis was accurate and that the studies, to be released on April 6, would show little tangible benefits from holding back students.

"I think the three things they are trying to do is to respond to our conclusion that retention is not helping kids," she said, adding, "They are realizing that the last thing you want to do is retain kids, and you need to put substantial supports in place."

The Chicago board voted yesterday to create an intensive reading program for schools with large numbers of failing students that would include full-day kindergarten, smaller classes in lower grades and mandatory summer school.

The board also voted to require a "personalized learning plan" be created for all students who are left back. Chicago's moves are consistent with the views of many education experts who advise against holding back students in favor of individualized instruction and intensive remediation while keeping children in class with others of their same age.

But Mr. Duncan, the chief executive who devised the changes adopted yesterday, said in an interview that the Chicago schools were not backing away from tough promotion standards, but had shifted to focus primarily on reading skills. He credited the policy with lifting performance across the system, including higher graduation rates and fewer dropouts.

"Is the fact that we retained kids the only reason we have been so successful? No, of course not. But it has been an integral part of our strategy. We would never have been where we are without ending social promotion."

Mr. Duncan said that trying to reduce the number of students held back was consistent with a tough policy. "I have really tried to do what I think is the best of all worlds," he said. "I fundamentally do believe in retention where you have to. I think it's a real wake-up call. I think it puts everyone: parents, teachers principals, students on notice."

New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said that he believed that the Chicago promotion rules had worked, and that New York's policy was similarly intended to strengthen early grade education. "The purpose of this is to refocus the system on the early grades to maximize our chance of success in the later grades," he said, adding that with more money from the state the city hoped to expand pre-kindergarten, summer school and other programs.

But critics of the city's plan questioned whether New York had taken heed of the lessons learned in Chicago and elsewhere. "We should study the Chicago experiment and consider intensive intervention before children enter the third grade," said Betsy Gotbaum, the public advocate for New York City.

And Leonie Haimson, of Class Size Matters, a group that advocates for smaller classes, said that Chicago's example showed the focus should be on improving the classroom experience, not on forcing children to repeat grades.

Red Alert!
Let's Opt Out of the April 2014 NYS Tests

Parents can refuse to allow their child to take the State high stakes tests. Hand in this letter to your principal [other formats: .pdf .odt .doc]. En Español: [otros formatos: .pdf .odt .doc] Send your child to school and ask that an alternative activity be planned for him/her during the 6 days of testing.

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We also have a magazine explaining Common Core, High Stakes Testing, and InBloom to parents. Varios artículos de esta revista fueron traducidos a Español.

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