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Faltering Scores For Poor Black Students In Chicago And Statewide

The students most in need of improvement in Chicago Public Schools — low-income African-American children — are advancing at a dramatically slower pace than their Latino and white peers, according to a recent analysis of the school system.

“Black kids from low-income households have not benefited from [Chicago’s] progress anywhere near as much as students from other ethnic groups,” said University of Illinois at Chicago researcher Paul Zavitkovsky, who co-authored a new study that looked at 15 years of elementary school test scores from every child in the state.

The UIC analysis found that in apples-to-apples comparisons between similar groups of elementary students in Chicago and the rest of the state, Chicago kids repeatedly outperform their peers outside the city.

But progress in the city has not occurred evenly among students. In Chicago, scores for low-income white and Latino kids have soared on state exams. But test score growth among low-income black students — some 120,000 students — was initially gradual but has essentially flatlined since 2011.

The bad news doesn’t stop at the city’s borders, Zavitkovsky found.

“While black kids in Chicago have not done as well as other groups, black kids outside of the city have done even worse,” Zavitkovsky said. He found that scores for low-income black students outside Chicago have actually declined over the last decade.

“They’re lower than Chicago and they’re going down,” Zavitkovsky said. ”There is a real crisis there. It’s devastating.”

The UIC researchers looked at the percentage of students scoring at or above the statewide median on reading and math exams.  

(Elliott Ramos/WBEZ)

The numbers come as black students are fleeing Chicago, potentially to districts that may be even less successful with students like them. CPS has lost 83,000 black students — one-third of its black population — since 2000. Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in CPS at 47 percent of total enrollment. Black students make up 38 percent.

Janice Jackson, CPS’ chief education officer, said school officials take the findings seriously,  but she also said the study is just one data point. She said other indicators — including ACT scores and graduation rates — suggest black students are making progress. On those measures, black students do show progress, but less than Latino and white students.

Jackson said neighborhood conditions and violence, not schools, are causing the exodus of black families from the district. She said she visited a Chicago school on the West Side this past year where 40 students had transferred to the western suburbs.

“Now when you look at the quality of the school and the district where [the principal] said most of his kids were going — it was no different, and in most cases it was far worse than what was happening in his particular school,” Jackson said. “But he said that parents were leaving because they just want to be in a safe community. And maybe that was the driving force, and as a parent, as a human, I can’t discount that.”

There was a bright spot for African-American children: Middle- and upper-income black students in the city’s public schools are improving at the same strong pace as their middle-income Latino and white peers.

Outside Chicago, middle-income black students have seen scores decline compared to the rest of students in the state since 2011.

Lackluster improvement among low-income black children has come even as Chicago has directed its most aggressive school reforms squarely at those students. The city has closed scores of schools for low-performance or under-enrollment, completely re-staffed schools, and expanded charters — mostly in low-income African-American neighborhoods.

For Shari Runner, president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League, lack of progress among low-income African-American students is rooted in years of disinvestment in schools and neighborhoods.  

“Part of what we’re seeing is the cumulative effect over periods of time of those resources not being allocated to those schools in high-poverty areas — whether they be in Chicago or downstate,” Runner said.  

Linda Lutton covers education for WBEZ. You can follow her at @WBEZeducation

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