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Intellect

BYU/Harvard study: summer school and grade retention effective

Research identifies promising approaches for school reform

As schools across the country toil to comply with standards of the No Child Left Behind federal education law, a pair of researchers have identified one effective strategy to raise student achievement and discredited another.

Brigham Young University professor Lars Lefgren and Harvard professor Brian Jacob report in the new issue of the "Review of Economics and Statistics," published by MIT Press, that an accountability program in Chicago Public Schools, requiring struggling students to attend summer school and possibly repeat a grade, yields lasting academic improvements, particularly for younger students.

"Educators need to know what returns they are getting on spending decisions, especially when you mix tight budgets with testing standards," said Lefgren, an assistant professor in BYU's economics department.

In February, Lefgren and Jacob published work in the "Journal of Human Resources" that showed increased training workshops for teachers did not translate into higher student achievement.

"Some methods of boosting test scores work in the short term, but the gains quickly fade," Lefgren said. "With Chicago's accountability program, students had considerably better math and reading scores as long as two years later."

Policies similar to Chicago's are growing in popularity, with 16 states now providing funding for summer school. The country's largest school districts, including New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., have recently abandoned the practice of advancement based solely on age, a policy known in education circles as social promotion. Despite its increased use, the idea of holding children back remains contentious.

"A lot of parents and educators speculate that repeating a grade harms children, but this is obviously not the case for all students," said Jacob, an assistant professor of public policy in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, noting that a second chance at the material may be just what a student needs.

For the Chicago program, schools began administering the Iowa Test of Basic Skills to third- and sixth-grade students at the conclusion of each school year. Those who did not pass attended a six-week summer session with smaller class sizes.

The researchers tracked both students who scored barely above the cutoff, and thus avoided summer school, and those who fell just short of the mark and spent six more weeks in the classroom. This technique gave the study two groups of students with comparable skill levels, allowing them to overcome group selection flaws of prior research on remedial education.

After two years had passed, their analysis found that third-grade students who did the summer session had an advantage of a month's worth of extra schooling over their peers who were not required to go to summer school. For sixth-grade students, the extended gains from summer school were half as much. The immediate result for both grades was that between 80 and 90 percent of the summer students passed the test on the second try.

Those who failed on both attempts were held back a year. Using a similar approach, the researchers conclude that repeating the grade significantly improved academic performance for third graders but had no net effect on sixth graders. A possible explanation for remedial education's greater impact with younger students is that the negative social impact, such as being labeled a "dummy," is more severe for older children.

"Not only do young children who are retained keep up with their peers who moved ahead, but they are much better students when they reach the next grade," said Lefgren. "This may allow them to enjoy more success later in their academic careers and may also facilitate the job of teachers who have fewer unprepared students in their classes."

Writer: Joseph Hadfield

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