Chicago Public Schools for decades has shouldered a reputation shared by big-city school districts across the country — perennially challenged by poverty and chronically low-performing. It was 30 years ago this year that the U.S. secretary of education declared the school district the “worst in the nation.”
But even as Illinois’ largest school district reels from an ongoing budget crisis, a string of recent studies is challenging the perception of CPS academics as lacking.
“That’s just not Chicago anymore,” said Paul Zavitkovsky, a researcher with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Urban Education Leadership. He is co-author of the latest study to find that CPS’ negative reputation does not match reality.
The UIC analysis of 15 years of Illinois test score data finds that in apples-to-apples comparisons between similar groups of elementary students in Chicago and the rest of the state, Chicago kids on average repeatedly outperform their peers outside the city.
“So a Latino youngster coming from a low-income household in Chicago is doing much better than a typical Latino youngster [from a low-income household] in the rest of the state,” Zavitkovsky said.
Middle-income black kids? They score better in Chicago. Middle-class white kids? On average, they do better in Chicago. And Zavitkovsky is not talking about test score gains or improvement — he’s talking actual scores.
CPS students outscore their counterparts in the rest of the state for every major racial and ethnic group
Numbers represent the percentage of students scoring at or above the statewide median score on the PARCC reading exam in 2016. Students learning English were omitted from this data.
“You name the subgroup, and kids in Chicago are doing substantially better than other Illinois kids outside the city,” Zavitkovsky said. A similar analysis by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research in 2007 had similar findings but never got much attention.
Chicago also has seen significant growth in its graduation rates and in average scores on the ACT college entrance exam.
The UIC study also documents the impact of expanding poverty in suburban and downstate districts. Fifty percent of Illinois public school kids now qualify for free and reduced price lunch, up from 37 percent in 2001. And while most low-income children in the state were at one time enrolled in Chicago schools, two-thirds now live outside the city — and that number is growing.
Zavitkovsky’s key finding: Poverty is an “equal opportunity disruptor.” In suburban and downstate districts where poverty rates have gone up — in many cases by double digits — test scores have faltered or been stagnant. Researchers long ago established that poverty drags down scores.
Bloomington School District 87, for instance, performed close to the state average in Illinois in 2001. Today, after seeing the percentage of its low-income students soar by 20 percentage points, and after dramatic improvement by CPS, Bloomington scores exactly the same as Chicago.
“Districts that thought of themselves as the backbone of achievement in Illinois are now doing about the same or, in some cases, not as well as the district in the state that used to be the pariah,” Zavitkovsky said.
Zavitkovsky said the public often associates low achievement with race. He said his new study shows the impact of increasing poverty on largely white communities, “and what we found was that it’s having the same devastating impact that it’s had for years on low-income communities of color.”
Many individual districts score higher than Chicago. They do that by enrolling a greater proportion of higher scorers — white students and non-poor kids of all races.
Skepticism turns to acceptance as studies pile up
Some school district leaders were initially skeptical that Chicago gains were real, said Janice Jackson, Chicago’s chief education officer. In the past, researchers have found that apparent test score gains turned out to be illusory.
“Anytime you see low-income, predominantly minority students making gains, people try to explain that away with, ‘[It’s] the demographic changes,’ or, ‘You must be kicking people out. You must not be testing everybody,’” Jackson said. “But I think we’re at a place now where people are starting to at least acknowledge what’s happening.”
Strong test scores out of Chicago over the last decade have even surprised education researchers. Sean Reardon, a professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University, has said he initially thought he had miscalculated figures that showed huge gains in Chicago test scores.
“I initially thought that had to be a mistake, because my prior [thought] was, ‘Oh, Chicago schools aren’t particularly great, right?’” Reardon said in one presentation.
But he checked his work against scores on the NAEP, a national test for elementary school students that showed Chicago students improving at a far greater clip than their peers in other big cities.
Why are Chicago test scores improving? Jackson thinks partnerships with universities have helped CPS better analyze test scores and grades and address problems quickly. And she said it hasn’t been popular, but she believes judging schools and teachers by test scores has helped. Chicago schools that don’t make the grade can suffer harsh consequences, including re-staffings and closure.
Chicago has improved compared to other Illinois districts, even as its low-income population has remained consistently high. Eighty-five percent of kids qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“If you see it as an advantage, [Chicago] has had a population of low-income, minority students … for a very long time, so in one respect we’ve had a lot of time to address this issue,” Jackson said.
One-third of all African-American students have left CPS
But while poverty rates have held steady, Chicago demographics are shifting mightily, and that accounts for some of Chicago’s improvement.
Nearly 83,000 black students — more than one-third of all African-American kids in the district — have left CPS since 2000. On average, black students score lower than their peers. Latinos are now CPS’ largest ethnic group, and they’ve posted higher scores and big gains over time.
So even if schools changed nothing, just having more Latino children and fewer black students in the district would boost scores. But that does not explain all the improvement, Zavitkovsky said.
“Once you control for that, you’re still seeing pretty dramatic increases,” Zavitkovsky said. Stanford’s Reardon and researchers from the University of Chicago concurred in separate analyses that test score and graduation gains made by Chicago students go beyond demographic shifts.
The good news, though, is not spread evenly. Low-income black students in the city have not seen the same gains as white and Latino kids during the last 15 years.
And, as the UIC study points out, as black students leave Chicago, they may be landing in schools that are even less successful with kids like them.
But overall, the UIC study and others may begin to change widely-held perceptions about Chicago. When comparing apples to apples — poor kids to poor kids, rich kids to rich kids — Chicago students come out on top.
Linda Lutton covers education for WBEZ. You can follow her at @WBEZeducation.