The Big Sort

How Chicago's school choice system is tracking kids into separate high schools based on achievement

July 16, 2014

By: Linda Lutton and Brendan Metzger

This spring, at grammar schools all across Chicago, thousands of eighth graders donned caps and gowns and walked across auditorium stages to receive their elementary school diplomas. This fall, the graduates from each of those schools will scatter—to more than 130 different Chicago public high schools, and counting.

But who goes where?

Over the past decade, Chicago has opened more than 50 new high schools, and will open more this fall. The school district is trying to expand the number of quality school options and offer students a choice of where to go to school. And in many ways, Chicago high schools seem to be improving. Graduation rates are inching up. The city now boasts five of the top ten high schools in the state.

But a new WBEZ analysis shows an unintended consequence of the choice system: students of different achievement levels are being sorted into separate high schools.

WBEZ analyzed incoming test scores for freshmen from the fall of 2012, the most recent year data is available. That year, the district mandated that every high school give students an “EXPLORE” exam about a month into the school year.

The 26,340 scores range from painfully low to perfect.

But WBEZ found few schools in the city enroll the full span of students. Instead, low-scoring students and high-scoring students in particular are attending completely different high schools. Other schools enroll a glut of average kids.

Think of it as academic tracking—not within schools, but between them.


THE BIG SORT

See how student achievement relates to high school choice in an interactive chart linking each score in 2012 to a school. Sort schools by type, demographics or location, and explore and compare the distribution of scores at each school.

The findings raise some of the same long-running questions educators have debated about the academic and social implications of in-school tracking. But they also raise questions about whether the city’s school choice system is actually creating better schools, or whether it’s simply sorting certain students out and leaving the weakest learners in separate, struggling schools.

WBEZ’s analysis shows:

  • Serious brain drain. The city’s selective “test-in” high schools — among the best in the state — capture nearly all the top students in the school system. There were 104 kids who scored a perfect 25 on the EXPLORE exam. One hundred of them — 96 percent — enrolled in just six of the city’s 130 high schools (Northside, Whitney Young, Payton, Lane, Lincoln Park, and Jones). In fact, 80 percent of perfect scorers went to just three schools. Among the city’s top 2 percent of test takers (those scoring a 23, 24, or 25 on their exam), 87 percent are at those same six schools. Chicago has proposed creating an 11th selective enrollment high school, Barack Obama College Prep, to be located in the same area as the schools already attracting the city’s top performers.
  • Clustering of low-performing students. Fifteen percent of the city’s high schools are populated with vastly disproportionate numbers of low-performing students. More than 80 percent of incoming students at these schools score below the district average.  The schools enroll 10 percent of all Chicago high school students.
  • Black students are most likely to be affected by sorting.  WBEZ’s analysis shows African American students are doubly segregated, first by race, then by achievement. Of the 40 most academically narrow schools in Chicago, 34 of them are predominantly black. Even though just 40 percent of students in the public schools are African American, Chicago has black high schools for low achievers, black high schools for average kids, black test-in high schools for high achievers.  
  • Within neighborhoods, more sorting. Schools within a particular community may appear to be attracting the same students demographically, but WBEZ finds significant sorting by achievement. Especially in neighborhoods on the South and West sides, the comprehensive neighborhood high school has become a repository for low performers; nearby charters or other new schools are attracting far greater percentages of above-average kids.
  • The dozens of new high schools Chicago has opened since 2004 fall on both sides of the “sorting” spectrum. New schools with the widest range of incoming test performers include Ogden International IB on the Near North Side; Goode, a Southwest Side magnet school with preference for neighborhood students; and Chicago High School for the Arts, which admits students based on arts auditions. New schools showing the least amount of academic diversity include Daniel Hale Williams (where incoming students score at about the district average); also low-scoring  DuSable Leadership Academy Charter (in the same building as Williams, ordered in 2013 to begin phasing out), Ace Tech Charter, and Austin Business and Entrepreneurial High School.

The idea behind school choice is to to let families pick the type of school they want for their kids, something more affluent Americans can do by moving or by paying for private school. Choice is also seen as a way to improve all schools by injecting more market-based competition into the school system.

But the sorting of students by achievement into separate high schools seems to be an unintended consequence.

“It certainly wasn’t a goal,” says Paul Hill, the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, and the architect of the “portfolio” school choice model Chicago and other big cities are following. Hill says he and others were concerned about sorting based on race or class, but dramatic sorting by achievement level was not foreseen.

Chicago schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who has been on the job for a year and a half, says she is aware that students are clustering in different high schools by achievement, and is concerned about any suggestion that that’s a good thing.

“There’s no research to support that,” said Byrd-Bennett, who said she, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the school board “come from a very different belief system,” one that does not rely on sorting students by achievement. “What we believe is you’ve got to elevate, raise the level and the quality of instruction at all of our schools, including our neighborhood (schools),” said Byrd-Bennett. However, she rejected the notion that sorting is an outcome of school choice or Chicago’s massive expansion in the number of high schools.  

“This has got to be a district of choice. If I choose to go to my neighborhood school, it’s because it ought to be a great school as well,” said Byrd-Bennett.

New York City and New Orleans see a similar dynamic

Despite most New Orleans schools being open to students of all academic levels, “high performing students tend to go to high-performing schools, and low-performing students tend to go to low-performing schools,” says Andrew McEachin, a North Carolina State University professor who has studied school choice in the now all-charter city. “So even though it's a choice-based district, you see that there's kind of like a tiered system, where people are choosing schools similar to their background and achievement levels.”

The same thing is happening in New York City. Why? Researchers say “achievement” may be an indication of the resources students have at home. Higher performing students’ families are better at getting information about school quality, navigating the system, and securing things like transportation to school or test prep for entrance exams.

McEachin and others say the consequences of sorting could reverberate to other aspects of the school system. “What is the unintended consequence of this ability grouping on the teacher labor market?” asks McEachin. “Is it going to make it even harder to get good teachers to the lowest-achieving students?”

Sorting by performance isn’t new in Chicago Public Schools, and isn’t unique to choice systems. Some of the city’s toughest high schools have not attracted generally higher performing middle-class students for decades. But under choice and a dramatic expansion in the number of high schools, parents and counselors say sorting of students is becoming more pronounced.

Students know the hierarchy

In Chicago, students can tell you which high schools are for which students. On a sunny afternoon before school let out in June, kids at Lane Tech—one of the city’s selective schools — describe the landscape.

“If you get straight As and you do really good on testing, the school you’ll probably get accepted into is Northside, Walter Payton, Whitney Young,” says freshman Amber Hunt.

What about the B students? “Schools with IB programs sometimes take solid Bs,” says Amber. “Charter schools are kind of like if you’re average, or slightly below average.”

Lots of students give the same answers. Ninth grader Evelyn Almodovar says she knows “C” students who went to private high schools because “they didn’t want to be embarrassed about going to a school that’s known as having worse students.”

And what about the lowest performers, those who struggle in grammar school? They go to neighborhood schools, every student tells me. “Low-ranking schools,” says freshman Anais Roman, naming a neighborhood school and low-scoring charter in her area.

Many elementary school counselors describe a nearly identical hierarchy (one grammar school even posts its graduates’ “high school destinations” in the same basic A-to-F order).

In an indication of just how segmented high schools have become, a counselor said her elementary school sends “average” students to a nearby high school that’s seen as safe, admits no low performers, and scores at about the district average. But she said she would not recommend the school for her top students—even though they’re eligible to attend. “I don’t think they would offer the academic rigor,” she said of the school.

A number of counselors lamented the sorting.

“We look at the suburbs, and we look at much of the rest of the country—there’s one school to go to based on your address, and that neighborhood  high school would have all sorts of different programs available,” says Walsh Elementary counselor Kristy Brooks.

Brooks says she sees positive aspects to Chicago’s high school choice system—kids leave segregated neighborhoods and find new classmates and opportunities, students push themselves to get into top schools. But she says she sees neighborhood schools being left with low-performing students who didn’t have the academic performance or the help to get to another school.  

“I think in the long run it would be better to have equity in all schools,” says Brooks.

But if all students were in a single comprehensive high school, wouldn’t they be tracked within that school anyway? Does it matter if they’re in separate schools?

“In part it doesn’t matter—it’s disastrous either way,” says Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and an opponent of tracking.

“But in part it matters because once we get to that point of between-school tracking, it’s even harder to try to address. If we’re going to reform the system and make it more equitable, starting with the kids in the same schools is a good first step,” says Welner, who argues tracking cements current stratifications in society.

Top performers benefit from sorting

For many students at Lane Tech, this is the first time they’ve attended school with all high achievers.

“It raises the standards a lot,” says freshman Paradise Cosey.

Another freshman says she feels more “comfortable” at 4,000-student Lane Tech than she did at her elementary school; she says this is the first year since fifth grade that classmates haven’t asked to copy her work.

High performing students are like gold in a school. Everybody does better around them—including other high-performing students. And it’s not just about test scores. The biggest predictor of whether a school is safe, orderly, and set up for learning is students’ academic achievement. Having top performers makes an entire school easier to run.

Paul Hill says some stratification doesn’t bother him, “One thing that this just demonstrates yet again is that human beings just love status hierarchies and we’ll create them any way we can.” Hill says Americans believe in equality, but they also believe in elite schools.

“But when it trickles down to the lowest-performing kids are in the schools with the least of everything, then that’s not tolerable,” says Hill.

Marshall High, a school of “last resort”

At Marshall Metropolitan High School, 86 percent of students come in scoring below the district average. Some can’t read.

Marshall, the attendance-area high school for a big swath of Chicago’s West Side, is among the 15 percent of Chicago high schools enrolling vastly disproportionate numbers of low achievers.

“Well, I didn’t actually choose to come to Marshall,” says rising sophomore Kadeesha Williams. “My mom said because it was in the area.”

Kadeesha had wanted to go to Marine Military Academy down the street. “I wanted to be a Marine, so I wanted to get the type of education they get so I can get ready,” she said. But the family turned her application in late. “We went to take a test. But my mom, she lost the paperwork.”

Kadeesha’s mom says the paperwork was actually lost at the school—they had no record of Kadeesha taking the test, she says.  

Kadeesha is liking Marshall. “Marshall’s a good school,” she says. “Because the teachers here, they’re very into you. They’re a lot of help.”

Other students say they came to Marshall because family went here. Some come to play for Marshall’s storied basketball team or, lately, the school’s budding chess team.

Teacher James Dorrell says for other students, “it’s sort of like a school of last resort. They try to enroll in charter schools or selective enrollments, and once they can’t get in, they would come here”—though he sees Marshall as much more than that. About half of the school's students come from the neighborhood, the other half from outside the attendance boundary.

Dorrell says after a re-staffing and infusion of money in 2010, Marshall is hugely improved. The entire school is set up to help the struggling kids who enroll here. Freshmen have double periods of English and math. Many take reading—a subject other high schools don’t even offer.

But more students still drop out than graduate from Marshall. And test scores have barely moved.

Marshall raises a question at the heart of tracking—and at the heart of Chicago’s system of school choice. Is it better to group low performers together? Better for whom?

“The pros are yes, we can have these interventions,” says Dorrell. “The cons would be—you would want some high achievers because they sort of raise the bar, and other kids could see what it takes to be successful. So I think having kids with higher test scores would benefit all of this group. But I also see the benefit of having these kids…tracked by ability.”

Marshall is open to all students in the neighborhood. But there are no freshman honors courses, no AP classes (the school is trying to change that). There’s little to attract higher achievers.

There are four new high schools within a mile of Marshall. Two are military schools with minimum test score requirements, keeping out low performers. The third is a Noble Street charter school, which requires much more effort to enroll than Marshall. (Parents need to come to an information session on a particular evening in order to obtain an application, for instance. Students must write an essay.)  At the two military schools, 48 percent and 64 percent of incoming students score above average. At the Noble Street charter, 41 percent of students enter above average. At Marshall, the figure is three times less—just 14 percent of incoming kids score above average.

That story is repeated in neighborhood after neighborhood in Chicago—and raises questions about whether the city’s school choice system is creating better schools, or simply pulling away better performing students, leaving the low achievers segregated into separate, failing schools.

Michael Milkie, the founder and CEO of the Noble Network of Charter Schools, Chicago’s largest high school charter network, sees the entire question of sorting as a “red herring.”

“I think the most important part by far are the adults in the building, their ability to deliver instruction, and the school culture. Those are the things that far outweigh whether you have a concentration of certain learners or a wide variety of learners,” says Milkie. All Noble schools attract far more high performers than neighborhood schools in the same communities; CPS recently told Noble Street that applications “must be available to all parents and students without limitations,” and that the charter network must indicate that the required student essay is actually optional.

Milkie believes his students are exactly the same as those in other schools. He says the Noble scores look higher because the incoming test is given 4-6 weeks into high school, enough time for his students to pull ahead, he says.

Lincoln Park High School: academically diverse, and de-tracking

Lincoln Park High School is an anomaly in Chicago. It enrolls everyone. A 30-year-old International Baccalaureate program attracts elite students. Arts programs draw other kids. The attendance zone guarantees seats to students from both wealthy and poor families.

Principal Michael Boraz likes to say this is the most diverse high school in CPS, and maybe in the country.

“Not just in terms of our racial and ethnic and neighborhood makeup,” says Boraz, “but also academically. We have kids from the 15th percentile rank in their standardized test scores, all the way up to the 99th. So it really is truly a diverse school in just about every sense.”

School is about more than academics, says Boraz. It’s where kids learn to live and work together. And now there’s a big effort inside Lincoln Park to mix kids more.

IB classes once reserved for the elite were opened up to everyone last year. So many kids took the IB math final the school had to set up the test in the gym. Boraz tweeted out a picture of 300 desks.

One morning before school let out, students in a freshman English class at Lincoln Park took turns leading a class discussion on Richard Wright’s Black Boy. The class included low performers and high achievers.

Teacher Mark Whetstone said it was hard to teach a class with such “extreme” diversity, but says he enjoyed it “immensely.”  

“And I think more importantly the kids at all levels benefitted from the makeup of that class,” says Whetstone. “I feel like my lower performing students rose to the challenge. They had great examples from their peers around them at all times. And at the same time, for some of my higher performing students, it was good for them to work with someone generally not at their level. To be able to interact, and also to be able to take a lead in the classroom.”

University of Chicago researchers are working on a report about the sorting that’s happening among Chicago schools. One of the authors, Elaine Allensworth, says Chicago needs to decide what it wants—a system where we sort students, or a system where we mix them together more.

“The solution is thinking about where we want to be as a society—what kind of system do we want—and how do we make that work for everyone,” she says.

Allensworth says researchers already know one thing: whatever approach Chicago chooses, schools need to increase supports for the lowest performing students. If kids are mixed, lower achievers need help keeping up so they don’t get frustrated and give up, and so they don’t hold back their high-flying peers.

And if Chicago decides to keep sorting students by achievement, then the schools filled with the lowest performers are going to need a lot of extra resources.

This story was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Linda Lutton is a WBEZ education reporter. Follow her @WBEZeducation.