At the beginning of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first term, more than a third of all city public schools earned the district’s lowest rating. Today, only a handful of schools rate at the bottom and nearly two-thirds earn the equivalent of an A or a B grade.
Emanuel highlights this growth as evidence of an improving school system, and the ratings on Chicago Public Schools’ five-level system are a major boost for individual schools. Many proudly display them on marquees and use them for marketing purposes.
But a look inside the formula used to grade schools tells a different, often contradictory story. A major change to the district’s rating system beginning in 2015 to emphasize student improvement over absolute test scores allows some schools to earn As or Bs while still posting low test scores.
In 34 of the 160 top-rated grammar schools, for example, the average reading and math scores were below average in at least half the grades, according to a WBEZ analysis of 2015-16 ratings and test scores on CPS’ main standardized test, the NWEA MAP exams.
Top-rated high schools also post a wide range of test scores, WBEZ found. The average ACT score at Payton College Prep is 29 out of 36, while at Perspectives-IIT it’s 16.5. Among the 33 top-rated high schools, 15 of them – nearly half – post average ACT scores below 21, the cutoff universities say marks a student as college ready.
CPS, like many districts around the country, has moved away from judging schools solely on performance or “attainment” – how high do students jump – to rewarding growth – how good are schools at improving test scores, regardless of where they begin.
This comes as experts have embraced growth. They consider it a fairer way to evaluate schools, particularly when children enter school behind and have a longer road to travel to master grade level reading and math, as many do in Chicago.
“The alternative is you just create an absolute standard, and then what you see is kids who are more advantaged living in more advantaged communities going to more advantaged schools surrounded by more advantaged peers doing better, and that is not fair,” said Timothy Knowles, who recently stepped down as chairman of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute and as director of UChicago Urban Labs.
But a heavy focus on growth also can paper over huge variation among schools with the same rating, potentially leaving a false impression of high achievement for individual schools and the district overall.
“I tell people, ‘Sure, you can look at these ratings, but kind of take them with a grain of salt,’” said Grace Sawin, co-founder of Chicago Schools GPS, which helps parents find schools for their children.
With so many schools lumped together at the top, Sawin said she sees the ratings as a baseline rather than a signal that one school is superior to another. She said parents often are surprised to learn that the ratings are not based primarily on absolute test scores.
That’s how CPS used to rate schools.
When Emanuel was elected in 2011, CPS had three ratings – 1, 2 and 3 – and student growth on tests only accounted for 15 percent of a school’s grade. At the time, 23 percent of schools ranked at the top, with the rest evenly split between the middle and lowest rating.
Shift to growth
Chicago schools today are rated one of five levels – 1+, 1, 2+, 2 and 3 – which essentially correlate to an A through F grade. A full 50 percent of grammar school ratings are now based on student growth on tests. For high schools, it’s 30 percent, though that is expected to grow after Chicago switches from the ACT to the SAT college entrance exam this year.
Under this growth-based rating system, 63 percent of schools rank in the top two ratings, both of which CPS considers high performers. That’s three times more top tier schools than when Emanuel was first elected as mayor. Another 20 percent of schools are in the middle, and 15 percent are in the bottom two levels.
Between 2011 and 2016, CPS’ average test scores have grown, but there has been no dramatic leap in absolute performance to match the jump in the number of top-rated schools under CPS’ rating system.
ACT scores, for example, climbed up impressively by 1.2 points over the five years, but the district’s average score of 18.4 still remains below college-ready standards. In rating schools, CPS’ looks at standardized test scores, attendance and graduation and freshman pass rates as well as other measures.
Looking ahead, many schools could face a ratings downgrade, even if the district continues to emphasize growth. Chicago is expected in the coming years to start using the new state standardized test, the PARCC, as the basis for its rating system. In a quarter of the A-rated elementary schools, less than 20 percent of students meet PARCC standards in reading or math.
CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson strongly defends the district’s tight focus on growth, saying that the ratings let parents know that schools overall are getting better. To bolster her point, she noted that test scores for Chicago elementary school children are going up at a faster rate than in other large urban districts on a well-respected national exam, known as the Nation’s Report Card or NAEP.
“You are never going to get to the attainment numbers that we all want for our children without incremental growth over time,” Jackson said. “You need incremental growth over time and I think our strategy has worked.”
What’s more, Jackson said parents will look at the range of measures that make up a school’s rating to determine what’s most important for their children. Plus, the rating system continues to show which schools are struggling, she said.
Highlighting growth also sends a message to teachers that they will be recognized for pushing their low-performing students forward, even if they don’t catch up.
“If a teacher is teaching eighth grade and they bring a student up two grade levels, they should be rewarded the same way that a teacher who gets a kid on grade level [and] moves them one grade level – I would argue even more because you took an under-performing student and moved them two years,” Jackson said.
But some experts are not sold on school ratings, especially one that purports to tell the whole story about a school. With so many districts offering school choice and harsh consequences for schools that don’t attract students, ratings can be a school’s death knell, said Matthew Di Carlo, a senior fellow at the Shanker Institute, a left-leaning research organization.
Di Carlo, who studies school ratings, said schools should be judged by growth because absolute test scores or attainment are so closely tied with demographics. A school with poor students is almost always going to do worse than one with middle-class students.
“You could wind up closing schools that are incredibly effective at growing students,” Di Carlo said. “Low attainment, high growth schools are great schools.”
On the flip side, there is a danger that these high-growth, low-scoring schools could be overlooked when it comes to doling out extra help, especially in a district like Chicago that is perpetually short on cash.
One school's story
The complex realities underlying the debate over how to best grade schools is playing out at Hearst Elementary School in the Archer Heights neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side.
Hearst has rated poorly, teetering between what was essentially a D and an F, since ratings were first rolled out in 2008. But recently, Hearst grabbed the highest rating possible.
Overall performance still needs work, with most students in most grades performing below national averages on the district’s standardized tests.
But growth is impressive. More than 60 percent of students saw their test scores jump at a rate faster than the average for students across the nation.
The school also gets points in CPS’ rating system for good attendance and strong climate and culture.
When principal Teresa Chrobak-Prince came to the school four years ago, it was suffering from a double-whammy. Students from poor families came in behind and led difficult lives. That wore teachers and principals out. They came and left quickly.
“The school had six principals in nine years,” Chrobak-Prince said. The building “had been neglected and it just looked like nobody cared. It was very dark. It was very drab.”
Almost all the nearby schools were doing better than Hearst, Chrobak-Prince said, and they had more assets – more middle-class families, burgeoning enrollments and more community resources.
And Hearst’s enrollment was dropping. In 2012, the school landed on a potential school closure list.
Chrobak-Prince set about constructing her own turnaround. She cleaned up the school, brightening the hallways with couches and new paint. She covered the walls with student work.
She provided tons of training for teachers. And then she set about changing the narrative for students. When she arrived at Hearst, students were constantly reminded of their low scores, Chrobak-Prince said. She remembered seeing a bulletin board showing student scores and it was covered with red.
Now the focus is on growth.
“Each teacher meets with each student and tells them what their growth target is,” she said. This gave students something attainable to shoot for.
These days, when Chrobak-Prince stops students, they can easily tell her their growth target and whether they have reached it.
One fifth grader, who surpassed his growth targets recently, summed up the new mood at Hearst.
“I feel proud,” she said.
But the Hearst staff knows how far they still have to go.
The A rating has begun to help. Enrollment has been inching up during the past two years. Chrobak-Prince said some families from overcrowded schools nearby are starting to consider her school.
But she said she knows top performance is the ultimate goal. That opens the door for her eighth graders to access stronger high schools and leaves all her students better prepared. Growth, she said, is just a prelude to strong results.
WBEZ Senior Editor Kate Grossman contributed to this report.