Research Finds Fault with Chicago’s Retention Program

K-12 Testing

by Donald R. Moore, Ed.D. , Designs for Change


A study by Melissa Roderick of the Consortium on Chicago School Research shows no significant long-term benefit from Chicago’s high-stakes summer school for students faced with repeating a grade – even for those students who attended summer school and then scored high enough to be promoted. These promoted students posted a short-term increase in Iowa reading test scores at the end of the summer. However, two years later, the promoted summer school students were not scoring any better on the Iowa test than their low-scoring peers who did not attend summer school. Intensive test preparation had short-lived results.


Since 1977, Chicago students in third, sixth, and eighth grade who failed to meet a cutoff score on the Iowa test in reading or math have been intensively drilled to pass the test during a six-week summer school session (see Examiner, Fall 2000, Winter 1999-2000). Summer school teachers have followed a scripted day-by-day test prep curriculum, with monitors checking to see that teachers stayed on the right page. The students who were the focus of the recent study were promoted after they passed the end-of-summer-school retest.


Those students who failed to meet the minimum score after summer school (about 10,000 students in each of the program’s first three years) were required to repeat a grade, based on a belief that these students would “catch up” during an extra year of school. However, prior research by Roderick indicated that Chicago’s retained students continued to achieve very poorly: Only about 50 percent ever met the minimum cutoff score for promotion, even after repeating a grade and often after a second summer school experience. Retained students achieved no better than students who were “socially promoted” before 1997.


Commenting on her earlier research about the program’s impact on the retained students, Roderick stated that “The effect of retention on these kids seems to be very decimating….This is just a disaster to be quite honest.” Yet the cost of summer school, plus an extra year of schooling for retained students, has been about $100 million per year.


Another hoped for result of Chicago’s high-stakes retention program was that the threat of retention would motivate students to work hard to prepare for the spring Iowa test, in order to avoid having to attend summer school. Yet the number of students sent to summer school in 2002 rose sharply, and 13,000 students were retained after the test-prep session, nearly double the number retained the previous summer. School district officials have refused to explain the reasons for this alarming increase, which runs counter to their faith in the motivating power of retention.


Chicago's mix of high-stakes testing and retention has proven to be an expensive failure that has harmed tens of thousands of students, not the national model touted by its proponents. The huge amounts invested in retention could be better spent on preventing low achievement-through such initiatives as strengthening the educational program during the regular school year, preparing all teachers to become effective reading teachers, and expanding early childhood education. As a last resort, research clearly shows that promotion with intensive special help is significantly more effective than retention with intensive special help.


- See Consortium on Chicago School Research studies of Chicago's retention program ( and critiques of these studies by Designs for Change, which also describe research-based alternatives to both retention and social promotion (
- See FairTest on retention at