Decoding the district’s progress report for 2008

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Chicago Public Schools put on its best face in 2008: Another Year of Strong Progress for Chicago’s Students – the district’s self-assessment of last year’s accomplishments and test score gains. But the rosy numbers mask a troubling reality, including decidedly mixed results on test scores at the showcase turnaround schools. On one measure – first-day attendance – the district is being disingenuous.

Chicago Public Schools put on its best face in 2008: Another Year of Strong Progress for Chicago’s Students – the district’s self-assessment of last year’s accomplishments and test score gains. But the rosy numbers mask a troubling reality, including decidedly mixed results on test scores at the showcase turnaround schools. On one measure – first-day attendance – the district is being disingenuous.

Here’s our take on:

Attendance rates

This year’s record-high first day attendance rate of 93.7 percent is a fishy number, based on a seven-month-old estimate of the number of students who were slated to enroll in September. In fact, Catalyst found several schools that, under the district’s formula, posted first-day attendance rates that exceeded 100 percent.

At Robeson, for instance, early estimates predicted 1,197 students. When more than 1,400 showed up on the first day, the district’s official attendance rate was 117 percent.

For charter schools that didn’t report first-day attendance figures, CPS simply estimated that 100 percent of students showed up. 

CPS has yet to release more detailed information on attendance rates on its REA website. Meanwhile, the latest state report card shows attendance declining from 91.3 percent in 2007 to 89.9 percent in 2008.

On the bright side, the district self-reported a four-fold increase in the number of students with perfect attendance in 2008. All 85,000 students deserve a round of applause. Attendance is a critical element of student success, especially in Chicago, where the school year is one of the shortest in the country.

ISAT, PSAE & NAEP

The district likes to tout increases in test scores. After significant changes to the ISAT in 2006, the percentage of Chicago students who meet state standards has climbed from 61.6 percent to 65.2 percent (composite, counting English language learners). Statewide, scores rose from 77 percent to 79 percent.

In fact, Catalyst and other researchers have found evidence that the city’s minority students are outpacing their suburban counterparts on successive elementary tests.

But Chicago still ranks low on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, otherwise known as the nation’s report card. On the NAEP, Chicago’s 8th-graders posted 10 point gains on the writing portion of the test, since 2002, putting Chicago up by a point over the average score for other large cities. Chicago’s 8th-graders have also caught up to the urban average in reading.

But the good news ends there. Chicago 4th-graders trail other large urban cities in math by 10 points, reading by 7 points and science by 9 points. The city’s 8th graders trail in math by 9 points and science by 8 points.

In high schools, the lone bright spot is Chicago’s continued gains on the ACT, which have outpaced the state’s gains in recent years. But the district’s Class of 2008 still posted average scores (17.7) that are well shy of the statewide composite mark of 20.5. Meanwhile, the percentage of Chicago students who met state standards on the PSAE, which includes the ACT and a separate basic skills test, dropped from 30.1 percent in 2007 to 27.7 percent in 2008.

Experts say that students really need to exceed standards on the state’s elementary tests in order to dramatically boost their chances of scoring a 20 on the ACT and gaining entrée into a quality college. But just 4.8 percent of 8th graders exceeded standards in reading last year, down from 7.2 percent.

Turnarounds

CPS notes that test scores are up at Sherman and Harvard elementary schools, where an ambitious “turnaround” program (replace teachers, keep the students) has paved the way for similar efforts at four additional schools this year.

It’s true, test scores are up at Sherman and Harvard—and at a faster clip compared to district-wide gains. Sherman’s composite scores jumped from 34.9 percent to 40.2 percent; Harvard’s scores climbed from 31.8 percent to 40.1 percent.

But data from the district’s newest “value-added” measure raises serious questions. That measure compares how well individual students at each school perform on tests relative to students with similar backgrounds across the district.

A quick explanation: Schools where students make more progress compared to their peers elsewhere in the city get green lights. Red lights are stamped on schools where children are making less progress than average. A yellow light means it’s unclear whether students’ gains outpace or fall short of their peers.

Sherman got yellow lights in both reading and math. Harvard posted split results: a red in reading and a green in math.

Experts say it could take five years to determine the effectiveness of the turnaround approach, yet CPS plans to dramatically increase the number of turnarounds in 2009.

Advanced Placement

The district deserves credit for pushing AP coursework. Challenging students academically is a good way to keep them engaged.

But the percentage of students who score three or higher on the five-point scale, indicating that they passed the course, has steadily dropped as enrollment has risen. In 2004, just 2,500 students took AP courses and about 39 percent scored a three or better. Last year, 5,700 took a course and just 28 percent scored high marks.

Another troubling trend: AP courses in science are not experiencing as much growth compared to AP English, social studies and math. About 1,500 students took science courses in 2004, with enrollment climbing 88 percent to about 2,900 students in 2008. Meanwhile, enrollment more than doubled in other AP courses.