Low-income students may be further squeezed out of CPS’ elite schools because of weak pandemic grades

WBEZ found a steep drop off in As and Bs among seventh graders in low-income schools last year. Those marks are key to high school admission.

Cynthia Manuel helps her son 14-year-old son Davionne study. Like many students, Davionne struggled with remote learning during the pandemic. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Cynthia Manuel helps her son 14-year-old son Davionne study. Like many students, Davionne struggled with remote learning during the pandemic. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Low-income students may be further squeezed out of CPS’ elite schools because of weak pandemic grades

WBEZ found a steep drop off in As and Bs among seventh graders in low-income schools last year. Those marks are key to high school admission.

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Getting into Chicago’s test-in public high schools is a feat every year, but Cynthia Manuel says it is going to be especially difficult for her eighth grade son, and students who like him struggled with remote learning during the pandemic.

Applications are due Wednesday, and Manuel is doing a lot of fretting.

“I think about this daily,” said Manuel, a petite, spirited woman. She is worried her son’s less-than-stellar seventh grade report card, which counts for half of the admissions criteria for the first time this year, will hurt him.

Top grades — As and Bs — are basically required to earn admission to one of the city’s top test-in schools and other selective programs.

During the pandemic, her son Davionne, like most students in Chicago Public Schools, spent it entirely in remote school. Manuel had to work, making it that much harder to ensure he was engaged academically. “He’s of an age where it is hard for him to really focus with a computer, and with all this flexibility of being in a house and being able to get up and go places, it was a struggle,” she said. 

Students across Chicago struggled last school year during the pandemic, but new data analyzed by WBEZ suggests that students from schools with mostly low-income families, like the one Davionne attends, struggled more. This may make it even harder for them to get into the city’s elite schools than in the past.

WBEZ’s analysis found:

  • There was a steep drop off in As and Bs for seventh graders in CPS schools serving almost all low-income students last year. Top grades fell by 10 percentage points between 2019 and 2021. Black students were impacted the most.

  • Meanwhile, in schools serving mostly middle-class students, the percentage of As and Bs dropped by only 4 points.

  • At the same time, the percentage of Ds and Fs in 2021 at schools serving lower-income students rose more than at schools serving middle-income students. The percentage of Ds and Fs at schools where at least 90% of the students are low-income jumped 10 points from 2019, to 24%. That compares to 12% at schools where less than half the students are low income, a 4% jump.

This exacerbates a long-standing gulf: Chicago schools with middle class students give significantly more As and Bs than schools serving mostly low-income students, a WBEZ analysis shows.

This comes as CPS changed its requirements this year for admissions to test-in high schools and other speciality programs, elevating grades in importance. Grades and a high school admissions exam are now the only two criteria. A second standardized test, the NWEA MAP, was dropped this year.

“I don’t like it,” parent Tempest Boyle said of the shift to a greater focus on grades. “I honestly think it is unfair to the children. It is not benefitting the kids at all.”

Her son goes to Frazier Elementary, an International Baccalaureate program on the West Side. In 2019, about 80% of the grades given to seventh graders were As and Bs. But that dropped to 57% in 2021. Typically, some of Frazier graduates get into selective enrollment schools.

All Chicago students can go to their neighborhood high school, but selective enrollment schools are highly sought after, especially top performers like Payton, Whitney Young and Jones. Not only are they strong academically but they get extra money from the district and fundraise heavily, allowing for dozens of art classes, numerous languages and robust sports.

CPS’ admissions criteria also are used to admit students to other selective schools and programs in the district’s choice system, including International Baccalaureate, honors, military schools as well as career and technical education programs.

CPS officials declined to respond to WBEZ’s analysis, but new CEO Pedro Martinez has said he will consider making substantial changes to the admissions process and plans to have community conversations around proposals.

But Boyle said future changes to the admissions process won’t help her son, who had a “horrible, horrible” experience in remote learning last year that will now determine what high schools he gets into.

Counselor Kristy Brooks said she also feels terrible for students who stumbled last year and are facing the consequences. Brooks works at Walsh Elementary School, whose student body is mostly Latino and low income. Some students did so poorly that they are even being shut out of career and technical education programs.

“I don’t know why we are penalizing students who are already suffering more because of the pandemic,” Brooks said. “For so many of my students, last year was just really, really hard.”

The race to get into CPS’ selective schools

Chicago Public Schools for the past several years has been trying to encourage eighth graders to consider programs across the city’s 160 high schools. But many students and parents continue to be focused on the 11 selective enrollment schools.

“I went to a neighborhood school, and I don’t think I got the same type of education as everyone else in different neighborhoods,” said Manuel, who grew up and still lives in North Lawndale. “I just feel like a selective enrollment school shines a different light and would give him better teachers, better curriculum, better opportunities.”

Cynthia Manuel and her eighth grade son at home in North Lawndale. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Manuel wants her son to get into Whitney Young in the West Loop or Westinghouse on the West Side. She said these schools have ample resources, while the schools where she lives do not.

But she’s concerned his grades will hurt his chances and that he wasn’t as prepared as he could have been to take the admissions exam.

Manuel points out that schools in other areas of the city had more in-person learning than schools on the West and South sides. On average, North Side schools had more than half their students in person from February onward, while the average on the South and West sides was 20%. Some private schools were also in person all last school year.

Manuel worries that her son will be competing against these better prepared students for coveted spots at these schools. And, if he does gain admittance, she wonders if he’ll be able to keep up.

“So now I’m at a point where I want my son to go to a selective enrollment, but at the same time I don’t want him to be below most of the kids,” she said.

Who goes to the city’s top performing schools?

If fewer low-income students and Black teens get into the city’s top performing selective schools next year, that deficit will continue a trend that began about 10 years ago.

These top selective enrollment high schools, on the North Side and city center, have always been more racially integrated than most CPS schools and also disproportionately white. Most were created under a federal consent decree to desegregate. Because the school system had so few white and Asian students, the district couldn’t integrate all schools so instead created magnet and selective enrollment schools with a goal of attracting a diverse group of students. It used admissions criteria to achieve racial diversity.

In 2009, the consent decree was lifted, but city leaders still wanted to maintain diversity at these schools. To achieve that, the school district shifted from weighing racial factors to socioeconomic factors in admissions.

Under the new system, the district divided the city into tiers based on socioeconomics. The top 30% of the seats in selective enrollment schools now go to the highest achieving students. The rest of the seats are divided evenly between the tiers, with students competing only against others in their tier.

In 2009, the top five performing schools — Jones, Lane, Northside, Payton and Young — were integrated with 32% white students, 32% Latino, 19% Black and 17% Asian students.

Today, more than 10 years later, the schools remain integrated but the white population overall has jumped to 36% and the Black population has dropped to 10%. The Latino and Asian student populations have remained steady. Low-income students at these five schools went from an average of 42% in 2009 to 36% this year, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. The low-income population for CPS as a whole also dropped during that time to 78% this year.

School district officials said in the past many Black and Latino who qualified to take the selective enrollment exam never showed up to take it. That was behind a significant new policy change this year where all eighth graders took the test for the first time. In the past, students had to qualify to sit for the exam.

Over the last decade, CPS also added three more selective enrollment schools on the South and West sides to a group of existing five schools in those parts of town. The goal was to increase access. However, none is racially diverse.

Former CEO Janice Jackson often bristled when people pointed out that Black students were losing ground at these integrated selective enrollment schools. The key, she said, was a focus on creating better options in all neighborhoods so students didn’t need to travel for a good high school.

CEO Martinez said he too wants to make sure that all neighborhoods have good high school options.

In addition, some research shows that selective enrollment schools may not be as important for student success as some think. Students with good grades and test scores tend to get into quality neighborhood or charter high schools, often outside of their community. Once there, they are just as likely, or even more likely, to grow academically, graduate and go onto college, the research shows.

The real concern lies with students who wind up in poor-performing neighborhood high schools, according to the research. Those students tend to flounder.

A counselor at a North Side elementary school said she was deeply concerned about the city’s limited career and technical programs and whether her students — all Black and low income — would be able to get in. They are much less competitive, but even these programs admit students based on grades and the high school admissions exam score

At this counselor’s school, 30% of grades given to seventh graders last year were Fs. Another 23% were Ds. Many students are not at grade level by the time they get to seventh grade, the counselor said.

“Without good options, good job training programs, we just see them on the street in a few years when they are 18 or 19 years old,” said the counselor, who didn’t want her name used because she didn’t have permission from her school to speak publicly.

The elementary school is just blocks from one of the top selective enrollment schools. But few students talk about going there, she said. Still, when students have a shot at a selective school or program, the staff rallies.

“We tell them ‘You’ve got to keep your grades up, you’re buckling down,’ ” she said. “We’re trying to prep them because of course, we want our students to go. We would be proud of them if they were to go to a selective enrollment school, but many times they’re not thinking in that regard.”

High stakes

David Stovall, a Black studies professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, argues that selective enrollment schools already privilege the privileged.

During the pandemic, that dynamic played out in schools where students weathered remote learning well. Kim Smolen teaches at Lenart Elementary School, a regional gifted center where students test in. Located in Auburn Gresham on the South Side, it is a diverse school with a majority Black population and few low-income students.

At Lenart, nearly 90% of the grades given to seventh graders last year were As or Bs. Students actually did better in 2021 than in 2019.

Smolen said she talks with students while in seventh grade about where they need to be to get into their school of choice. Also, her students’ parents are often highly attentive and aware.

“When teachers reach out and say, ‘Hey, your kid is struggling. Can I keep them after school for some additional tutoring?’ Or, ‘I notice your kid is missing like three assignments,’ ” Smolen said. “I get really positive responses and additional support from parents, which is always helpful.”

Stovall said many people complain about the bias in standardized tests and how that creates a barrier. But he said grades often do the same thing.

He said there’s little acknowledgement that grades are used in different ways by teachers and schools and how they grade can depend on who they are teaching.

“It is all the layers … race, class, gender, geography,” he said. “We have to put all of those in conversation. We can’t have a discussion of CPS absent a deep understanding of white supremacy and how it operates.”

The high stakes of grades and exams in seventh grade won’t be the last time students in Chicago grapple with systemic barriers. Some teachers are trying to balance the odds by giving students extra grace right now, he said.

“They understand that where you go to high school can be a life line or a death knell, and they take that seriously,” Stovall said.

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