CHICAGO - According to Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), a citywide non-profit membership organization here, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is willfully imposing an injurious and discriminatory retention policy on a mass scale, systemically violating the civil rights of African American and Latino students.
The multiracial, multicultural and economically diverse group is a resource for public school parents, providing information, support, training and advocacy. Earlier this week it filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights saying CPS has been unfairly flunking minority students due to a controversial promotion policy.
Since 1996, CPS has flunked more than 100,000 third, sixth and eight-grade students whose standardized test scores were below a certain district-defined cut-off point on an annual, nationally-normed standardized test, notes PURE, costing an estimated $100 million a year.
The complaint states: "We have made every effort to work with CPS to ameliorate the bad effects of this policy, to no avail. We file this complaint today because, as parents, we can no longer stand by silently while children continue to be harmed. Furthermore, no school system should perpetuate policies that have been proven to increase and even accelerate the student dropout rate, especially at a time of national commitment to address this alarming situation. Finally, when we are experiencing a local, state and national economic emergency which has resulted in the layoffs of thousands of teachers, raised class sizes, and forced cutbacks in other key school resources, there can be no excuse for a government entity to perpetuate a wasteful, extravagant program that research has shown offers no benefit to the children it purports to help."
In 1999 PURE filed a similar complaint and won promises from CPS to revise its rules when it came to flunking students. Since then CPS has broken several of those agreements while continuing to disproportionately make African American and Latino students repeat a grade, says PURE.
In 2004 the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research published a major study noting the CPS retention policy was ineffective and should be stopped immediately.
"It is time to replace the CPS elementary promotion policy with one that works, is not harmful or discriminatory, and will actually serve to improve teaching and learning," says the complaint. "We believe it's time to move forward, cognizant of the mistakes of both social promotion and retention. CPS must establish a policy that proactively addresses student's needs, instead of retroactively punishing them."
Data shows that repeating a grade does not improve student learning, in fact it results in weaker long-term academic achievement, which makes the alarming drop out rate worse. Flunking also causes emotional harm to children. Students CPS has failed over the years were 25 percent more likely to drop out by age 17.
Recent data from the State of Illinois school report card notes African American CPS students are 30 percent, and Latino CPS students 35 percent, more likely to drop out than white students.
The complaint cites one mother explaining the emotional stress her son displayed after being retained. She wrote: "He has experienced and sustained serious emotional distress because of these multiple retentions and the extreme stress he now feels about taking the (test). He has been made to feel inferior and as if he is a failure. He has cried, made up excuses not to go to school, felt extremely nervous, and dreaded the day of the test. He is only in the fourth grade, and has the rest of his schooling ahead of him, yet I am afraid that with this test as a barrier, he has been and will continue to be denied the opportunity and support he needs to be a motivated student, to be instructed in a high-quality curriculum, and to progress towards graduation, college, and a successful career."
According to the CPS report, "Promotion and Retention Rate by Race and Year for Students Enrolled in Summer School 2002-2008," African American students were retained at a rate five times that of white students, and Latino students at a rate 2.2 times higher, in 2008.
PURE activists say single high-stakes test scores are not good indicators of student progress and CPS should implement a more accurate and sound assessment system. A personal learning plan should be created with resources to help children falling behind that would involve parents and be monitored quarterly. High-quality early childhood education programs should also be funded, similar to the now-defunct Child Parent Centers. Teacher aides and augmenting support for English language learners should be required as well as redesigned summer school programs that better meet students' needs. And finally reducing class sizes - especially in the most at-risk schools - and retaining experienced teachers with demonstrated ability to serve high-risk students could produce positive outcomes, says PURE.
Photo: Hundreds of teachers, students, parents, union leaders and local activists rallied in front of the Chicago Board of Education building last Jan. against the board's proposal to close and reorganize more than 20 schools. Pepe Lozano/PW