High school magnets don’t boost achievement

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Each fall, guidance counselor Joyce Caito becomes a bit of a salesman, trying to convince 8th-graders of the merits of their neighborhood high school. And each fall, she becomes frustrated when so many students put the neighborhood school, Roosevelt High, at the bottom of their wish lists.

Caito, a counselor at Bateman Elementary in Irving Park, says it was the same story at two other CPS elementary schools where she previously worked. “It’s almost frowned upon if you want to go to your neighborhood [high] school.”

CPS 8th-graders have a Dec. 16 deadline for high school applications, and under Chicago’s open enrollment system, they have many options. But having choices doesn’t necessarily mean better academic achievement in the long run, according to a study released earlier this year.

Attending a high school that enrolls higher-achieving kids makes no difference in the long-term academic success of individual students, the study found.

The study looked at a group of 19 Chicago magnet schools and programs that admit students by lottery, provided that they have met any minimum requirements, such as grade level test scores. (It did not include the elite college prep magnet schools or other programs that accept only the most qualified applicants.)

Researchers compared the long-term academic success of lottery winners and losers. It found that students who won random lotteries to these magnet schools or programs did no better years later on a range of academic achievement measures—standardized test scores, graduation rates, and credit accumulation—than did lottery losers who went to the neighborhood high schools that the winners had bypassed.

No academic advantage

The results of the study are surprising, says co-author Brian Jacob of Harvard University, because both policymakers and parents believe magnet schools and programs provide an academic benefit. Despite their popularity, these schools “don’t seem to help kids in at least one big way that we hope schools will: achievement and graduation.”

 

David Gilligan, principal of Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, says that some of his students struggle despite having met a test score requirement to enter the school’s random admissions lottery.

Sometimes it’s a lack of parental support, poor organizational skills or difficulty juggling multiple courses with different teachers, he says.

Lottery winners in the study did fare better than the losers in some ways—they were significantly less likely to face disciplinary action at school and 40 percent less likely to be arrested. Jacob says this finding suggests that students may be opting out of their neighborhood schools for safety or other non-academic reasons.

Why winners lose

Chicago high schools admit students in a variety of ways. Neighborhood high schools are open to all students living within their attendance boundaries. Selective enrollment high schools, such as the college preps, admit the highest-ranking students based on academic or other qualifications. Some magnet programs within neighborhood high schools also select the best-qualified applicants. Other magnet schools and programs admit students by random lottery, although in some cases they set minimum criteria for entering the lottery.

Researchers had several reasons for using the lottery programs to study school choice. Since the lotteries are random, the losers and winners have essentially the same characteristics, making it easier to compare the outcomes of one group to another. Also, the winners and losers begin high school with similar motivation levels since they all wanted to leave their neighborhood schools.

Researchers analyzed 19,520 applications to 19 high schools with random lotteries in 2000 and 2001. Some of these schools, such as magnet high schools Von Steuben and Chicago Agricultural, admit almost all of their students by random lottery. Others, such as Lake View and Wells, hold lotteries for admission to magnet programs within the larger school. (Lotteries that ended up admitting all applicants because too few applied were not included in the study.)

In the long-run, some lottery winners actually fared worse. Overall, high school graduation rates were about five percentage points lower for lottery winners than for the losers. Winners who attended the better lottery magnet programs, such as those at Curie High in Archer Heights and Kennedy High in Garfield Ridge, graduated at the same rate as lottery losers. Winning a lottery also appeared to hurt certain groups of students. For example, winning the lottery lowered the graduation rate about 11 percentage points for black students and seven percentage points for males.

Choice can hurt

If these findings are accurate, they look “problematic” for CPS efforts to improve student achievement by increasing school choice, says Elaine Allensworth, an associate director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. On the other hand, she notes that students who lost lotteries and attended neighborhood schools didn’t perform any worse as a result, undermining the argument of some critics that choice hurts students who are left behind.

Allensworth says this study counters previous studies which show that students do better when they are surrounded by higher-achieving peers. But she wonders if the similar outcomes for lottery winners and losers are the result of attending schools that are not much different on measures such as standardized test scores and graduation rates.

 

Jacob agrees that some magnet programs and neighborhood schools in the study enrolled similar students. However, even in cases where lottery winners bypassed neighborhood schools with significantly lower achievement, they failed to outperform lottery losers who attended those schools.

In fact, selecting a school with high-achieving peers not only didn’t help some lottery winners, it actually seemed to hurt. The lottery winners who gained the most in peer quality, as measured by standardized test scores, were the least likely to graduate.

Jacobs speculates that perhaps those students didn’t benefit from higher-achieving peers because they didn’t associate with them. “Maybe they maintained peer networks from their old school or neighborhood,” he says.

An earlier study by the same researchers examined the impact of high school choice on graduation rates for all CPS students, not just those who applied to magnet programs that use a random lottery.

They found that choice did not increase the chances of graduating, except for those who enrolled in career academies, also known as vocational schools.

Chicago offers a unique setting for studying school choice because of the large-scale open enrollment system in which more than half of all high school students opt out of their assigned high school, says co-author Julie Berry Cullen, an economist at the University of California, San Diego. Still, she doesn’t think it’s fair to conclude that school choice can’t impact student achievement. For one, she says it’s possible that choice would have a larger impact on elementary school students, because you’re reaching them “earlier in the game.”

Still, the study suggests that in seeking out high school programs, parents may be overestimating the academic benefits of magnet schools, she says.

Adrienne Hubbard, a guidance counselor at Greeley Elementary, finds that students want to enroll in high schools with strong reputations but sometimes aren’t academically prepared for them. “I stress that it’s not the school, it’s the programs at the school, who your friends are, what you do,” she says. “I make sure they research their home school and know all it has to offer.”

Jody Temkin is a Catalyst contributing editor. E-mail her at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.