Testing Leads to Grade Retention

K-12 Testing

After years of claiming that stressing standardized tests and flunking students with low scores would lead to educational improvement, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced the highest grade retention rate since its test-based promotion policy began in 1996 (see Examiner, Fall 1997). More than 13,000 thousand students are currently repeating a grade.

District officials claimed lower than expected math scores were the cause. Chicago used a new version of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) to determine promotion last spring.

Don Moore, director of the Chicago reform group Designs for Change, called the results “a crisis.” Chicago’s Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) asked, “Is this tragic evidence of the ultimate failure” of the city’s policies? Mayor Richard Daley, however, claimed that retention would be good for the children.

In October, administrators at five or more schools went into seventh grade classrooms and publicly called out students who were to be returned to grade six, presumably because they had not passed the promotion test. Students were distraught and parents complained publicly. Apparently, no one in the system asked whether these students were in fact keeping up in seventh grade.

Grade retention is one of the most well-studied policies in education. Research has repeatedly shown that retention is a failure on both academic and psychological grounds. This has not deterred politicians from instituting such policies, usually using test scores to make retention decisions. That use violates the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, established by the measurement profession to guide proper test use, and the guidelines of most test publishers, including Riverside, which sells the ITBS (see Examiner, Spring 1999).

Retention often leads to an increase in the dropout rate. Some studies conclude students who are retained once are twice as likely to drop out as are comparable students who are not retained. Studies conducted by Designs for Change and by the Consortium on Chicago School Research have found an increase in the dropout rate, especially at earlier high school grades and even in middle school (see Examiner, Fall 2000).

In part, the high rate of retention appears due to the city’s failure to implement its agreement with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (see Examiner, Fall 2000, Spring 2001). As a result of a complaint filed by PURE in 2000, CPS agreed to institute standard processes for appeals of retention decisions and to inform parents about the process. PURE recently met with CPS officials and reported that CPS says it will now adhere to the agreement — which will still allow the misuse of tests for a misguided policy.

Chicago is not alone in imposing massive grade retention. More than one-quarter of Baltimore’s students are being retained this year. Nearly 20,000 of the 70,000 students in grades 1 - 8 were held back. Standardized test results were one major criterion. Parents could appeal, and about half of some 2000 appeals were granted, mostly to students who were near the test cutoff score.

Testing of students in early grades, especially for high stakes, has been widely criticized by child development experts. The test used in Baltimore is the Terra Nova, a norm-referenced exam not based on state or district standards.

Test critics have predicted that one consequence of high-stakes testing for schools, for example as required in the new federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is that more districts will use standardized exams for retention in an effort to boost their scores.

• See The Case Against High Stakes Testing for material on retention.