New policy would change when Chicago students are held back, eliminates test scores as factor

Two first grade girls stand at a white board and answer questions for a project about bees.
Chicago Public Schools is weighing a new promotion policy for elementary school students. (Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages)

Chicago Public Schools could change when elementary school students can be held back a grade and plans to stop using test scores as a factor. 

The district did not hold back any elementary  students during the first two years of the pandemic in a nod to COVID’s academic and mental health toll. Last year, it revised the policy for promoting students to drop a test that schools were no longer required to give. 

Now, the district is proposing to end the use of test scores in promotion decisions permanently, according to a draft policy shared with principals last month and obtained by Chalkbeat. It would also shift the grades in which a student can be held back, from the third, sixth, and eighth grade to the second, fifth, and eighth grade.

Under the proposed policy, elementary students receiving academic interventions would be automatically promoted. The new policy would also add science and social studies to math and reading on the list of subjects students must pass. 

Over the past decade or so, the district has gradually relaxed its once-stringent promotion policy. Research showed it harmed more than helped the disproportionately Black and Latino students who were required to repeat a grade. That trend coincided with a rise in skepticism about the value of retention nationally, based on studies suggesting it increases the odds that students might drop out of high school. 

The school board is expected to consider the draft elementary promotion policy in January.   

Elaine Allensworth with the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, who has studied retention in the district for years, applauds removing test scores as a factor. But she said the change in the grades students can repeat might be disruptive because it would mean those grades would serve more struggling students. 

“That affects the achievement and experience of other students as well,” Allensworth said. “It decreases the rigor of instruction.” 

Retention can also be stigmatizing for students.

Lisa Russell, the mother of four Chicago Public Schools graduates and a West Side parent advocate with the nonprofit Community Organizing and Family Issues, said a classmate of her youngest son had to repeat the eighth grade shortly before the pandemic hit. 

The girl had received good grades and only found out she was behind academically when she did not attain the required score on the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, the standardized test used in promotion decisions, Russell said. She added it can be deeply embarrassing to be back in an eighth grade classroom with younger students.

“That put her in a shell where she really wasn’t learning any more,” Russell said.

Russell worked with students with disabilities before she retired and said in her experience retention did not help students who were in some cases multiple grade levels behind by the time they were required to repeat a grade. She is glad the district is considering no longer using test scores to retain students.

Pavlyn Jankov, a researcher with the Chicago Teachers Union, noted the grade promotion changes are part of a broader shift, as the district is also working on a new way of evaluating school performance that is expected to put much less weight on tests. 

“As a district, we are moving away from test-based accountability and punitive measures,” he said. 

The union advocated for that shift and now welcomes the change. But he said the teachers union didn’t know about the new grade promotion policy. He said he worries that documenting student interventions can add to a growing volume of paperwork for which teachers are responsible. And he thinks the new policy should offer a rationale for switching the grades in which students can be held back.

The district’s pre-pandemic promotion policy for elementary students required them to get a C or higher in reading and math as well as hit a certain score on a standardized test. Students who failed to do so had to attend and successfully complete summer school to move on to the next grade. 

But last year, the district discontinued its contract with the NWEA, the nonprofit that administers the MAP test used in determining grade promotion. Schools no longer have  to give the test three times a year. It is not being used for grade promotion currently and the new proposed policy would formally eliminate testing as a factor. 

Under that proposal, students will advance to the next grade if they get a passing grade in core courses, or if they are getting help in them. There are now interventionists staffed in each school who work with struggling students one-on-one or small groups. These students can move on to the next grade even if they fail a class.

Second graders would only have to pass reading. Students in grades five and eight would also have to pass math, science and social studies.

For Chicago, the proposed policy overall would continue a trend of making it harder to hold students back a grade.

In the late 1990s, the district drew national attention with a strict promotion policy based on standardized test scores that led to thousands of students repeating a grade each year. The district touted the policy as an end to “social promotion,” or letting students advance just because they were a certain age.  But by the early 2010s, research had started to raise alarms about the long-term effects of holding students back based on test scores. 

The district started letting up on its promotion criteria in response to that research. By 2015, officials floated the idea of doing away with grade retention altogether, though that idea never took hold. The number of students held back continued to plummet. 

The district was not able to provide data on how many students were retained on the cusp of the pandemic. It is not clear whether the district is also mulling changes to high school promotion.

The Consortium on School Research’s work has offered a clear repudiation of strict promotion requirements, said Allensworth. 

Academic growth tended to slow down in the year students had to repeat. Students who were held back, especially those who repeated more than one year, struggled to fit in socially by high school. Some found themselves still in school at 19 and 20 as peers had moved on to college or jobs. 

Overall, students who repeated a grade in elementary school were much more likely to drop out by high school. The prospect of repeating a grade did help motivate eighth graders — but not students in earlier grades.

Students who have to repeat a grade often had experienced a family disruption or mental health issues, Allensworth said.

“Retention doesn’t solve the issue for that student — it adds another problem,” she said. She added, “If you look at the effects of this policy, they are pretty much all negative, especially in the longer term.”

But, said Allensworth, retention remains politically popular, buttressed by what she called the “myth of the third grade level.” It’s the idea that students should reach a specific, easy-to-measure knowledge level by the end of each grade, when in fact children fall on a wide academic spectrum.

Allensworth said questioned adding more subjects students have to pass. But she supports including interventions as a factor in favor of advancing students on to the next grade.

“If students are struggling to pass, you want to do something about it,” she said.

 Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at

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