At its Jan. 11 meeting, the District 65 School Board’s Policy Committee briefly continued its discussion about the relative merits of social promotion – advancing students who have not mastered the work at their grade level – versus retention – mandating that a child repeat a grade. The matter was first discussed on Oct. 12.

John Price, Assistant Superintendent of Schools for the District, said in an Oct. 12, 2015, memo that current Board policy “is aligned with Illinois State Board of Education codes and recommended policy.” District 65’s policy 6:280 states, “At each grade, the students’ meeting of grade level standards shall justify promotion to the next grade. … Social promotion is not allowed.”

Mr. Price’s Oct. 12 memo also stated that, although the District’s policy “is aligned to State code, it is not well aligned to research. There are few issues in education where we see clear research in such direct conflict with common practice as with the issue of ‘social promotion’ and retention. While educational research clearly and repeatedly indicates that retention does not work to benefit children, policy continues to prohibit the perceived opposite of retention, commonly referred to as ‘social promotion.’”

With the current practice in District 65, “very few” students are retained in kindergarten through eighth grade, Mr. Price’s memo said, and the number of retentions is “far lower than data would suggest if schools were actively following the policy to retain students who do not meet grade level expectations.”

A decision to retain a student is made in conjunction with parents, Mr. Price said; often social factors and attendance are at play as much as is academic achievement.

Mr. Price’s memo said, “Eighth grade students are typically given supports in the final trimester in order to support each child’s graduation. Current practice reported by principals, followed in most schools, is that a child must have passing grades (D or better) in the core classes (ELA, Math, Science and Social Studies) during the final trimester. Students who are failing one or more core classes in the final trimester are provided additional supports and/or time in order to complete missing assignments and pass tests that are required prior to participating in graduation and receiving a diploma.”

In the 2014-15 school year, “no student was prevented from graduating” because of poor academic performance, according to Mr. Price’s Oct. 12 memo.

Looking at the immediate future of students who do not complete grade-level work in terms of retention or social promotion, Mr. Price’s memo said, “represents a false choice. A third option is to offer increasingly intensive interventions … while keeping students working with their age level peers in diverse classrooms.”

At the Jan. 11 Policy Committee meeting, Mr. Price said the District is developing strategies to support students at risk of academic failure.

Board member Claudia Garrison asked whether the support would be for math and reading or whether it would also include science and social studies.

“Haven Middle School is offering an additional math-support class [for students to take] instead of a second fine-arts class,” Mr. Price said.

Board member Suni Kartha, who chairs the Policy Committee, said, “I think it’s important to have that focus on middle school graduation so we can develop some strategies early on.” She said she hopes the discussion will expand to include “What can we do in kindergarten, first grade and second grade?”

Board member Jennifer Phillips asked whether there is a connection among social promotion, student retention and summer learning.

Mr. Price said the District uses supports for struggling students during the academic year, “so that issue is not addressed.”

Stacy Beardsley, District 65’s interim executive director of curriculum and instruction, said, “First and foremost is ‘How do we support kids in the school year?’ because if we’re waiting until summer, they [will have had] an entire year of frustration.”

“Is summer learning in the [mix]?” Ms. Phillips asked.

“For middle school? Not currently,” said Mr. Price. “District 65 is offering high-quality reading and language-arts interventions in middle school [during the year].”

Ms. Beardsley said she sees the summer programs and the interventions during the school year as “connected but not interchangeable.”  

Board member Candance Chow said, “I trust the research that you shared. The concern I have with social promotion is that a lot of the negative effects of retention that happen are the same ones that happen when students move through the grades and haven’t acquired these skills. They get disengaged; their self-esteem falls.

“To say social promotion is bad and retention is bad, what is good? I tutor kids in fourth and fifth grade, and they are totally disengaged,” Ms. Chow said. She said 14 to 15% of District 65 students are reading at or below the 25th percentile and fewer than 1% are being retained. “What happens to that 14 to 15%?” she asked.

Ms. Kartha said the committee discussed in October “How do we get to the stage where we’re not worrying about ‘Do we retain kids?’ We want an effective intervention to put in place so retention does not become an issue.”

Board President Tracy Quattrocki said she believed Joint District 65/202 Committee will address these issues.

Board member Claudia Garrison said, “I find that totally ironic. … I wouldn’t want us to get to the point where we say to teachers, ‘What are you going to do?’ to make sure that we don’t retain students. We have to be careful in our efforts not to retain that we don’t put pressure on teachers to do things that are professionally intolerable.”

“We do have a policy on this,” Mr. Price said. “We’re trying to move the conversation from ‘Whom do we fail and whom do we pass?’ to ‘How do we support all our kids?’ Part of the social promotion [discussion] is to identify problems in assessment systems.”

“At this point, it’s not a policy issue,” Ms. Chow said; “it’s a curriculum issue.” She said she would like to have a “full Board-level discussion” and she would like to see more detailed information on the students reading at or below the 25th percentile who are moved on to the next grade. Until that group of students is broken down and analyzed, she said, “We don’t know what we are tackling.”

The next meeting of the Policy Committee is scheduled for April 18.

Information about the Joint District 65/202 Literacy Goal presented at the Nov. 9 joint Board meeting showed that 100 students scored below the 40th percentile and 45 students scored from the 40th to the 50th percentile on the eighth-grade Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test administered by D65. 

“These scores place students into tier 2 reading supports at the Evanston Township High School,” Dr. Peter Bavis, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at ETHS, told the RoundTable.

The 45 students who scored between the 40th and 50th percentiles on the eighth-grade MAP test were placed into the tier 2 Freshman Reading Course Support at ETHS. The number of students in the Freshman Reading support increased from 34 students in the fall of 2014 to 45 students in 2015; in the fall of 2013, the number was 65 students.

Ninth-graders entering ETHS with MAP reading scores below the 40th percentile are enrolled in Reading Enriched course supports. At present 100 students are enrolled in this course. In fall 2014 there were 65 students enrolled, and 34 students in the fall of 2013.

Dr. Bavis said the high school offers the STAR assessment to each of these students three times each year to see whether the students are “making growth.”

“This cohort is by far the largest,” Dr. Bavis said. “We track how many kids failed the first semester. If you fail a core course – math, English, history or science – it significantly decreases your chances of graduating in four years – or graduating at all,” he said.

“Because the number is so large, we have to be attuned to each individual student,” Dr. Bavis said.

At present, ETHS offers summer programs for students coming in from eighth grade. “We may look into ‘What could something like this look like in seventh or sixth grade? What does the sixth- or seventh-grade intervention look like in the summer?’” Dr. Bavis said.

He said he understands that District 65 is looking into the issues of retention and social promotion and that at some point District 202 would like to join the conversation.

“It goes to the Cradle-to-Career [initiative],” Dr. Bavis said. “We have to be attentive to kids who are entering the system and who are exiting the system.”

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...