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A WBEZ analysis found a deep-seated disparity in who gets top grades in Chicago Public Schools.

Marc Monaghan

In Chicago Public Schools, wealthier students get far more As and Bs than low-income students

A West Side Chicago teacher was all smiles as she described her funny and smart six-year-old students, first graders who she said she absolutely “loves, loves, loves.” She takes seriously the task of building a foundation for her students, almost all of them Black and from low-income families, so they compete as they get older.

So when it comes to grades, she focuses on whether they are meeting standards. She gives out few As. Mostly, she gives Cs.

“If you’re meeting the expectation, that’s a C,” said the teacher, who works in West Garfield Park. “I think some people think C’s are bad. No, it’s not. You know what you’re supposed to know. … If you’re excelling, if you have a mastery level of understanding … that’s an A.”

The teacher asked to remain anonymous because she didn’t want to bring any attention to her school.

For students at this school, like at many serving mostly low-income students, earning As and Bs isn’t a given, as it can be at schools serving wealthier students. There are many complicated reasons for this, including teachers who range in their grading philosophies and the reality that students from low-income families often lack the resources or privileges that allow more affluent students to thrive in school.

The net effect in Chicago is a profound grading disparity, a WBEZ analysis has uncovered.

Standardized tests have long been criticized for producing predictable results based on a student’s ZIP code. But lesser known is that grades follow a similar pattern. A new analysis from WBEZ shows that poor kids in Chicago Public Schools are given far more Ds and Fs than students from more advantaged backgrounds in both elementary and high schools. Conversely, wealthier students get significantly more As and Bs.

WBEZ’s analysis found:

  • This grade disparity begins in the earliest grades. Last school year, 93% of grades were As or Bs for first, second and third graders at schools where the majority of students were middle class or not considered low-income. But only 60% of grades were As and Bs at schools where 90% or more of the students were low-income.

  • This grade gap existed before the pandemic, but this entrenched disparity widened as many low-income families struggled with remote learning and economic and health issues. In 2019, about 80% of the grades in schools serving majority middle class families were As or Bs compared to 60% in schools with nearly all low-income students.

  • Between the 2019-2020 and the 2020-2021 school years, WBEZ found that As and Bs dropped across the school district while Ds and Fs rose — but not evenly. The changes were more pronounced at schools serving almost all low-income students (more than 90% low-income). Those schools gave out five percentage points fewer top grades and seven percentage points more Ds and Fs in 2021 than in 2019. Meanwhile, at more affluent schools, where less than half of the students are considered low income, As and Bs rose by about two percentage points while Ds and Fs stayed about the same.

How grades impact children

“It is tragically demoralizing for young children to get Ds and Fs,” said David Stovall, a Black Studies professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who focuses on education, housing and criminal justice. He feels strongly that young students who aren’t showing up for school shouldn’t be punished with poor grades because they rely on their parents to get them to class.

Stovall said children and their parents will internalize bad grades as connected to their abilities and that negative self image is hard to shake. Alternatively, good grades open up opportunities, he said. In Chicago Public Schools, strong academic performance in elementary school can propel a student into accelerated junior high programs and into top high schools.

When students start getting bad grades, it should signal that they need extra help and not be a way to punish them, said Elaine Allensworth, executive director of the UChicago Consortium for Chicago School Research.

“This inequity in grades is what we should really be working on,” Allensworth said. “Grades are a signal of students’ ability to get work done and learn, much more than test scores. If students are not at that A, B level, it is saying, ‘they are not engaged, they need more support because they are probably not on the path to college readiness.’ ”

Allensworth also said students from more affluent families have inherent advantages. If students are struggling, their parents can afford a tutor, or might have more time or the background to be able to work with their child themselves. They also can provide their children quiet places to study and have reliable transportation to and from school. Lower-income children also sometimes have jobs after school or must care for younger siblings, taking time away from school work.

“There are all these things that people with money can afford to do,” she said. “Resources make a difference.”

And students with wealthier parents often go to schools that also have more resources, staff and support, said the first grade teacher from the West Side school.

“I’m also going to guess that they have helicopter parents that will throw a fit if their kid gets a C.” she said. “In all my years teaching, no parents have ever come at me about a grade.”

Grading for equity

When searching for what’s driving grade differences between wealthier and high-poverty schools, some experts look to a shift in grading practices and in training for teachers.

Joe Feldman, a former principal in Washington, D.C., who wrote the book Grading for Equity, said grading used to be done on a scale or a curve, with teachers comparing students in their class. But these days, teachers like the one in West Garfield Park are measuring students against set standards. As a result, there’s no expectation that a certain percentage of students will earn As or Bs.

Feldman said teachers should grade based on fixed standards so that there is some uniformity across schools, but with the understanding that a student’s ability to meet standards is often tied to their access to resources.

Feldman, who did not review CPS’ data, said the shift to standards-based grading only partly explains the disparities in grades. He said how teachers approach grading varies widely, possibly because colleges of education give scant instruction on how to do it.

He said teachers are often grading behavior and compliance as much as academics, especially at schools that lack resources to address behavioral issues.

“Oftentimes what teachers will do is have this archetypical student in their brains, and that usually is what they look like as a student or acted like as a student, either individually or culturally,” Feldman said. “And then they compare students to that archetype and give them points or subtract them for the students’ adherence to that archetype.”

The pandemic effect

During the height of the pandemic last year, this disparity in grades became even more pronounced as low-income students in particular struggled.

The West Side teacher said some students stopped attending online classes regularly as parents got burnt out. “It was rough,” she said. “To just keep them engaged, I wore a banana suit, a hot dog hat. We would sing weird silly songs, just trying to keep them in school. You would text parents to remind them to have their kids login, and there would be no response.”

She said she didn’t know how to grade students who didn’t show up regularly because she did not know whether they were meeting standards.

This year, she’s is finding it just as hard. Few students are meeting first grade standards, but she doesn’t want to give out all Ds and Fs. And she said there’s been little direction from CPS leadership. Instead, she is turning to her colleagues for direction.

“We are all calling each other, like, ‘What are you doing?’ ” the teacher said.

Winnie Hall-Williams, a special education teacher at Nicholson School in Englewood on the South Side, said the pandemic merely highlighted the difference in access to resources that exists between schools in poor communities and those in wealthier ones. Students at Nicholson also are mostly Black and mostly poor.

Early on in the pandemic, Nicholson didn’t have enough laptops for all students, and some families didn’t have internet access. As time moved on, students struggled to find quiet places to do school at home.

“The logistics of everything together did not make this a setting for a perfect academic world,” Hall-Williams said. “It just was not there.”

Now that students have returned to school, Hall-Williams said they need small class sizes and individualized attention to regain ground. They also need social work support, she said.

Hall-Williams said it is important to tell parent directly that their children are not at grade level. The hope, she said, is that once parents know their children are behind they can get them help.

She thinks this year many students at her school are being graded on progress, rather than on meeting standards.

“We’re not miracle workers,” she said. “We can’t take a student just reading on the fourth or fifth grade level and bring them all the way back up to eighth grade by the end of the year. But we can see growth.”

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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