Students doing better than report suggests

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The recent report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research about the aspiration-attainment gap in the Chicago Public Schools highlights many important issues that deserve careful consideration. Unfortunately, the mainstream media’s reporting did not fully reflect the positive developments that have emerged in recent years that are worth noting.

Overall, the report keeps the focus where it should be, on providing students with the academic preparation they need to succeed in college and to be full participants in today’s knowledge society.

The report’s finding that only a third of CPS graduates who enroll in four year colleges complete a degree within six years is indeed sobering, particularly in the context of enduring concerns about the distribution of educational opportunity by class and race in the United States.

While some questions have been raised about this finding, the report’s emphasis on the importance of quality coursework makes a great deal of sense. Unfortunately, some of the more promising program investments were implemented too recently to have shown up in the recent analysis.

At DePaul, we have started to track the progress and performance of students emerging from two of these programs, CPS College Bridge and the International Baccalaureate (IB). While it is too soon to have data on graduation rates, our experience confirms the report’s stated faith in the importance of quality coursework. It also provides a small corrective to those who might see the report as simply another damning assessment of public school failure.

The College Bridge program allows CPS students to take advanced courses at local universities, while the prestigious International Baccalaureate has been established in more than a dozen neighborhood high schools. In their own ways, both programs deliver high-quality coursework to students who might otherwise not have access to it. They form part of a wider quality initiative that also includes an expansion of Advanced Placement (AP) offerings and the implementation of the national AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program, which takes average students and places them in higher level courses.

The report recognizes such initiatives, particularly AP and IB, and argues that these are indeed the sorts of steps CPS should be taking to enhance both college access and success. We would certainly echo that recommendation.

The International Baccalaureate program offers a comprehensive curriculum that challenges students in a variety of subject areas, requires them to write a great deal, engages them in community service and stimulates international awareness. It’s a very traditional curriculum in many ways, and yet what could be more relevant today?

Certainly, the performance of the IB students from CPS at DePaul has been very impressive. Their retention through to the third year of undergraduate study is about 90 percent, and hardly any appear to be experiencing academic difficulty. And this is despite the fact that their ACT scores are consistently below those of the average incoming freshman at DePaul. Clearly, standardized test scores remain very imperfect predictors of college success, especially for low-income students and those whose first language is not English.

This raises important questions about the measurements that are used both to demonstrate progress in the public schools and to identify students who are likely to succeed at the college level.

As the report makes clear, coursework and grades are better predictors of college attainment than standardized test scores. Still this has yet to be fully reflected in the overriding direction of national or local school reform, or in the admission policies and practices at many universities.

Indeed, one of the major issues concerning educational opportunity today has to do with the way in which standardized test scores limit the ability to resolve the tension felt by so many universities between student access on the one hand and widely accepted measures of academic quality on the other. In the CPS context, programs such as IB, AP, College Bridge and AVID stand at the very intersection of access and quality and to that extent offer the best hope we have to narrow the gap between student aspiration and attainment.

Let us hope that the Consortium’s report will further encourage innovative curriculum at the high school level and more open-minded approaches to admissions at the college level. Such concrete steps will surely help us make significant progress in helping more disadvantaged students achieve significant progress in attaining college educations.

Brian Spittle is assistant vice president of enrollment management for DePaul University.