Chicago schools sued for flunking minorities

Chicago’s policy of flunking third-, sixth- and eighth-grade students who do poorly on state exams disproportionately harms black and Latino students, charges Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) which has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Students who are held back get discouraged and drop out, said Julie Woestehoff, executive director of PURE.

The threat of retention has pushed low-achieving students to work harder to raise achievement, said Elaine Allensworth, chief research officer at the University of Chicago‘s Consortium on Chicago School Research. But there is a down side.

“We saw and still see students held back two or three years and entering high school really old,” she said. “They have no chance of graduating by 18, and so there’s no way they are going to stay in school.”

Students may be required to attend summer school for scoring below the 24th percentile in reading and math, earning D’s or F’s in reading and math or having more than nine unexcused absences. Those who fail summer school must repeat the grade.

Retaining students cost up to $100 million in 2008, PURE estimates. The group wants students who are falling behind to get help before third grade. Nobody objects to that, but it leaves the problem of what to do about students who aren’t prepared to move on to the next level.

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  1. WHY are they basing grade level on the state test? A better question would be, “Did the student attend classes, complete homework and pass the tests on the material given by the teacher during the school year?”

    Sure, give children extra help if they can’t read or whatever. But my. One test could mess up your entire life under this system. Those parents have a right to be angry.

  2. “The threat of retention has pushed low-achieving students to work harder to raise achievement…”

    Maybe. I don’t know many third or sixth graders capable of that sort of calculation. My first reaction was, if they can’t pass the third grade test, they’ll not pass the fourth grade test. On the other hand, if they can’t pass the third grade test, will retaining them and doing the same thing again improve their performance? I don’t think so. On the other hand, the school’s fourth grade test scores will be artificially boosted, because the kids who scored below the 24th percentile won’t be taking that test.

    I wonder what would happen if the state were to offer any child scoring below a certain percentile on the state tests a voucher to attend local parochial schools? That might give the Chicago Public Schools an incentive to work harder to raise achievement, too.

  3. How about they measure a student’s progress objectively each year and use that to decide if the student should move on. You know, like schools used to?

    I’ve known people who were held back in kindergarten because they couldn’t color inside the lines or operate scissors effectively. Nowadays, social promotion rules elementary school. If there is a best time to hold students back a year or two, its early elementary school. Long-lasting friendships and the associated social pressures don’t exist. Young children make new friends easier than adolescents, and there would be less of a sense of hopelessness that students develop if they are held back later in their schooling.

    The only reason that the feds and states were able to implement the boondoggle that is NCLB is because schools abdicated the responsibility of objectively evaluating students.

  4. When will government admit that a large fraction of today’s student body is trainable at best, not educable… and that the complexion of that fraction is un-PC?

    Probably never.

  5. Elimination of age-segregated classes and implementation of self-paced instruction would reduce schools’ legal exposure to race and gender discrimination suits. Problem is, they would demonstrate that schools do not need expert teachers and parents do not need schools to produce well-educated children.

  6. I’m not certain how you want them to go about it, Engineer-poet. I’d say that the schools are treating the state tests (designed to diagnose schools, not children) as if they were well-calibrated IQ tests. A child who’s held back repeatedly in elementary school will not receive a high school education if he drops out before high school.

    It would be more fair if the schools were to administer actual, old-fashioned IQ tests, and check for common learning disabilities, before requiring a child to repeat a grade. Check to see if the child has been taught to read before assuming that she’s a lazy student who needs to work harder.

  7. I hate to say this, but when has ‘passing a class’ or being promoted become a ‘right’, rather than a ‘privledge’ (I know that when the USSC affirmed Plyler vs Texas in 1982, it guaranteed the right of education to all children 18 years and under in a public school)?

    These days, you almost have to work very hard to FAIL in school, but in reality, when children and their parents start realizing they must take responsibility for their own education, perhaps student achievement will start to rise. As a taxpayer, I’m sick and tired of paying for the education of students for 12 years (and then being allowed to graduate), but be unable to fill out a job application, read and follow instructions, or handle basic math (add, subtract, multiply, divide, percentages, and fractions).

    A graduate who cannot do any (or all) of the above doesn’t deserve the diploma they were given as a result of self-esteem issues and/or social promotion.

  8. Okay, Bill, I get that passing is not a right, but I don’t think that’s what anyone here is saying. I just don’t equate passing a STATE TEST with passing a grade level. You surely don’t equate “student achievement” with a fill-in the bubble test? You would want them to teach to said test even MORE than they do already in the hopes that answer A, B, C or D will help these kids learn to fill out a job application? I mean, I know schools can do a better job, but testing isn’t the ONLY way to prove competency.

  9. Ummmm, if you have MASTERED the material in question (including theory and application of said material), you’ll have absolutely NO problem passing an examination in it. I know this, because I used to be a lousy test taker, until I learned the secret to taking examinations (of course, I didn’t learn this until middle school), but how hard could a test be at the third grade level?

  10. You might want to reconsider your distaste for STATE TESTs Happy Elf Mom when you run into a high school graduate who, having passed gracefully from one grade to the next until that golden day when the received their diploma, discovers they can’t read the friggin’ thing.

  11. Allen, there are other methods to check the ability to read. You’re presenting a false choice.

    State tests can do a very good job diagnosing schools. They aren’t designed to distinguish between children. For one thing, exams given in different years could have entirely different “cut” scores. A child who’s below proficient in one year could be proficient the next–solely because the politicians put pressure on the state school authorities to set a lower score as proficient. “The Illinois State Achievement Test (ISAT) measures individual student achievement relative to the Illinois Learning Standards.” Theoretically, a student could be able to do grade-level work, but have scored poorly on certain sections of the test because he moved to Chicago from out-of-state. Let’s say, he missed the unit on the Aztecs because his school covered the Pilgrims instead. The test is designed to measure the school’s efficacy, not whether a child is on grade level.

    Compliance with school assignments during the year, grades on school tests during the year, even attendance would be good standards to decide whether a student could advance to the next grade. There are tests designed to measure children’s achievement, such as The Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

    There’s also a basic point. There will always be students who score below the 24th percentile on any test. If you make a policy of holding students back who score below the 24th percentile, you are committing yourself to holding back 23% of your students. If black students are 5x more likely than white students to be among those students, and hispanic students are 1.5x more likely than white students to be among those students, you have institutionalized a policy of refusing to advance black & hispanic children. In theory, all the students in Illinois could score above grade level on the exam. There still would be a lowest 23%, though.

    Once again, this test is designed to diagnose schools, not individual children. I don’t object to holding children back when it’s warranted, but this looks very much like a program designed to hold back 23% of each grade every year, on the basis of a test not designed for that purpose. This policy has the (unintended?) side effect of removing the lowest 23% of students from the grade cohort. “Oh, look dear, last year the grade had 23% of students perform below basic, but this year they all scored basic and above. The school has improved their performance.” (not)

    Notice that the parents are asking for more intensive help for their children before the third grade.

  12. Thank you, cranberry, for explaining that in detail. One can fail the state test AND be a poor reader, but IMO it’s also possible that there are very bright people who perform poorly under such pressure.

    And Allen, I do have great disdain for those state tests. They “tell” the school that my illiterate son reads at a fifth grade level. Yes, he passes gracefully from one grade to the next thanks in part to these tests. HE IS 15 AND CANNOT SPELL “APPLE.” Mind you, he is autistic and learning disabled. I am not sure that any amount of intervention will make him able to read fluently. But the school in the past has used these “passing” scores to show that he doesn’t need any substantive help. And that’s wrong.

    There is nothing wrong with using the tests as AN indicator of student achievement, but having one test – or even a series of tests – become the entire linchpin of a child’s education is in my opinion quite wrongheaded.

  13. Happy Elf Mom,

    A student who has a(n) actual learning disability which has been medically documented isn’t in the same class as those students who for whatever reason (along with their parents) don’t think there are penalties for not studying, cutting class, or just being an idiot in the classroom.

    A student who is on a IEP already is at a disadvantage, and shouldn’t be tossed in with the rest of the students with regards to testing (I don’t know how parents feel about the concept of mainstreaming students on a IEP, though).

  14. I understand where you are coming from, Bill, but my POINT being that the tests are not necessarily indicative of overall academic ability. My son is illiterate but can make rational guesses on the exam. It stands to reason that there are other students who can read and write at or above grade level, but can’t pass the exam.

    I think mainstreaming students on an IEP is a lovely idea for many but not all children, depending on the subject and the student’s ability to keep up with others in the class. The people of the world not only have many different cultures, but many different abilities as well, and we need to learn to be able to talk with and get along with folks who have disabilities.

    I’m glad that we are past the time where children are institutionalized by default, though I do understand that this poses additional challenges to the school system. It may be that funding would best be spent for severely disabled students in a family-centered model as it is from birth to age three, but I don’t want to get too off-topic because of the scope of the original post. ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    Quoth Happy Elf Mom:
    My son is illiterate but can make rational guesses on the exam. It stands to reason that there are other students who can read and write at or above grade level, but canโ€™t pass the exam.

    Actually, I don’t think it stands to reason at all that false positives are at all indicative of the presence of false negatives. If anything, it’s probably the opposite — a given filter usually gives one or the other. If it gives both, it’s more or less useless.

  16. Well Happy Elf Mom, your estimates of what is and isn’t wrongheaded aside there just aren’t that many ways to determine whether school districts, schools, administrators and teachers are worth what they’re paid.

    And if tests, and only tests, aren’t good enough to determine whether the public’s getting what it pays for, and your son is getting the education he’s capable of absorbing, then you may have to learn accept the fact that perfect knowledge isn’t obtainable and that a reasonable effort to obtain adequate knowledge is really a much better state of affairs then what cranberry and similar apologists and defenders of the status quo have to offer which is ignorance.

  17. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    I’ve got a thought. It’s crazy, but it might just work. This has almost nothing to do with the current discussion and is a total digression. It was brought up by allen’s pointing out that “there just aren’t that many ways to determine whether school districts, schools, administrators, and teachers are worth what they’re paid.” Here’s the plan:

    Every school gets a budget based on how many kids it has enrolled.
    At the beginning of every year, maybe two weeks before classes, all the parents of all the kids get together with the Principal, and they hire the teachers.

    Every teacher gets hired individually, and every teacher can set his or her own price. If a teacher doesn’t want to make less than $80,000, then he or she sets that as his or her price and if the parents don’t want to pay it, the teacher isn’t hired.

    It could be like an auction block, but in reverse: every teacher gets up on stage, one at a time. They put their qualifications and experience up on a projector, and the teacher announces their opening price. The price continues to drop until either a majority of the parents accept, or the teacher walks off the stage.

    There could be little booklets that list the teachers and their qualifications put out in advance. Maybe a little squib, too, about teaching philosophy.

    This can happen every year. It would not just be a madhouse, it would be FUN. And any excess money left over at the end of the bidding would be distributed for additional classroom supplies.

    And every teacher would get paid exactly what they are worth to the people using their services.

  18. Allen, the tests seem to do what they were designed for reasonably well–diagnose the schools and school districts. Chicago Public Schools receive a 3 on Great, based on their test results, and glancing at the test scores, they deserve that rating.

    When a student scores below the 24th percentile on a state NCLB test, is that because the child can’t learn the material, hasn’t tried to learn the material, or hasn’t been taught the material? I don’t know, and one test won’t tell you that, either. If the very, very low scores are much more likely to be found in the students of Mrs. X, then the school should investigate whether Mrs. X is a competent teacher. As I understand it, at present, they can’t, due to union rules. Notice that the CPS official puts all the blame on not learning on the child, not the teacher or school. On the other hand, their overall test scores aren’t spiffy. There could be multiple factors at work–children, parents, teachers, and administrators are all parts of the puzzle.

    I’m not for social promotion, but holding children back without trying something different isn’t a solution. If they didn’t learn it the first time, why would they learn it the second? If the schools held the children back, and dedicated more resources to addressing learning issues, such as required after-school tutoring, or special schools dedicated to such students, maybe that would help some children avoid being held back multiple times. I wouldn’t want a 12 year old 7th grader sitting next to a 15 year old, but that happens when students are held back.

  19. Obviously, the only responsibility of a school system is to teach (present) the material; children are not standardized products and it’s wrong to blame schools if they cannot learn it or don’t care enough to try.

    But this gets back to the un-PC aspects; all of our discrimination law assumes that people ARE standardized products.  Therefore, the law is a large part of the problem.