When Charles Mingo, principal of Du Sable High School on Chicago's impoverished South Side, investigated the attendance records of his incoming freshmen, he discovered just how topsy-turvy Chicago's school system is. Dozens of his students hadn't completed eighth grade, and in a random sample of 36 freshmen, 16 had missed at least a full year of school between fifth and eighth grades. Only five of the 36 were not chronically truant during at least one of those years.
The system deems these children ready for high school anyway, under its policy of "social promotion." A Chicago public school student cannot be held back more than one year before eighth grade and, even if he fails to obtain an eighth-grade diploma, he is automatically deemed a high schooler at age 15.
The rationale? Educators are trying to discourage kids from dropping out, says Dawne Simmons, spokeswoman for Superintendent Argie K. Johnson: "Our own research has shown one of the highest predictors of a dropout in high school is an over-aged student." And, true, since social promotion became official policy in 1990, the high school dropout rate has declined a bit, from 48 percent to 43 percent.
But when you look at the city's high school statistics, it's hard not to see this policy as an effort to deny system-wide failure. At more than half of Chicago's public high schools, the average student scores in the bottom 1 percent of the nation in the ACT college entrance exam, and 40 percent of high school graduates who apply to the Windy City's Malcolm X College test below eighth-grade reading levels; 30 percent test below sixth grade.
Curbing dropouts is a worthy goal, but only if schools are providing an education. Chicago's schools are failing their students, even if they won't flunk them.