Big changes in how students are picked for CPS’ elite high schools start today

Students stand in front of Walter Payton College Prep
In 2019, students leave Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, one of the city's 11 test-in high schools. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ
Students stand in front of Walter Payton College Prep
In 2019, students leave Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, one of the city's 11 test-in high schools. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

Big changes in how students are picked for CPS’ elite high schools start today

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Chicago eighth graders can start applying to the city’s test-in and specialty high schools beginning Wednesday under a new process designed to increase accessibility, though people wonder if it will indeed give poor students and students of color a better shot of getting in.

New CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said he is carefully watching and will not be afraid to make more changes in coming years if there are barriers for some students.

“What I love about our schools is that we know how to do high-quality programming,” Martinez said. “I would put us against anybody in the country and I think our parents know that. The fear that all of us have, as parents, is, who has access? How easy is it to navigate it?”

Among Chicago’s 11 test-in schools are some of the top schools in the country. But the most competitive ones, including Payton College Prep and Jones College Prep, disproportionately enroll white, Asian and higher income students. Meanwhile, the number of Black students and students from low-income families enrolled in these schools has dwindled in recent years. Eighth graders can also apply to dozens of other competitive programs in other schools, including International Baccalaureate and honors programs.

Part of the new process this year is geared toward trying to make these schools and programs more accessible. In the past, students applying to the test-in schools were judged based on three criteria: seventh grade marks, results from a high school admissions test and scores from an exam called the NWEA MAP.

But CPS did away with the NWEA MAP this year and students haven’t taken it in two years. As a result, students applying for test-in schools and other programs will now be judged on only two criteria: the high school entrance exam and grades. There is enthusiasm for this change, but also concern from some school counselors that the greater focus on grades could hurt students. They point out that low-income students in particular struggled to keep up with school work during remote learning.

The other big change in the process this year is that all eight graders will take the high school exam. In the past, students had to score at the 25th percentile on the NWEA MAP to be eligible to take it. Now, everyone will take it.

And the students will take it at their schools. In the past, students had to travel to one of three locations on a Saturday to sit for the exam. Students from private schools will still have to take the test at a centralized location.

CPS officials have said this will make selective schools more accessible. About 30% of Black students and students from the poorest neighborhoods submitted applications in the past, but never showed up to take the test, according to CPS. Only 10% of white students failed to show up.

While making the test more accessible is good, some counselors say using seventh grade final marks will hurt their students.

Counselor Kristy Brooks said many high-performing students at her school of mostly Latino, low-income students had trouble last year as they tried to navigate remote learning.

“It will measure things like your WiFi strength or if your device from CPS actually works, many of which were old and slow,” Brooks said. “Were you able to participate or were you watching a younger sibling because your parents worked essential jobs?”

“So we are not actually measuring student grades or if they were trying,” Brooks said. “We are measuring access and opportunity.”

Data bears this out. Fewer As and Bs were handed out to 7th graders in spring 2021 than in 2019, according to a WBEZ analysis of final grades. But the drop wasn’t evenly distributed. Seventh graders who attended schools with mostly low-income students got 5% fewer As and Bs than in 2019. But students with higher income students got just 2% fewer As and Bs than two years ago.

Despite the change in the admissions selection process, Chicago Public Schools not change process for having students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds compete against each other for seats in the selective enrollment test-in high schools.

A third of the seats in the schools are awarded based on rank order, using scores and grades. The other 70% are divided among four tiers. Every student is assigned a tier based on the socioeconomic characteristics of the neighborhood where they live.

Most of the selective enrollment schools were created under a federal desegregation consent decree. Once that was lifted, CPS put in place the current system to try to make sure that the schools stayed diverse.

Students from poor communities can get into selective enrollment high schools with lower composite scores than students from upper middle class communities. However, there are cut off scores, which vary by individual schools. In some situations, there are not enough students in low-income tiers that meet the minimum score so their seats get distributed to students from other areas.

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