Impressive ISAT gains don’t impress CPS’ new leaders

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Just two years ago, Morton Elementary in Humboldt Park on the West Side was an example of what can go wrong with a turnaround—the process in which CPS pours extra money into a school and fires all the teachers and administrators.

Under the new team and the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a not-for-profit teacher training program charged with running the school, test scores dropped, from 60 percent not meeting standards to 70 percent.

AUSL officials knew something needed to happen. So they, in effect, turned around the turnaround, at least at the top, by replacing the principal.

The second time around, the strategy seems to be working. Morton is now in the top half of all CPS elementary schools, with nearly 75 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards.

Morton is not the only AUSL turnaround to see dramatic gains. Every one of the AUSL turnaround elementary schools saw some increase, according to the latest Illinois Standards Achievement Test scores. Curtis Elementary on the Far South Side, which almost was closed down last year, now has 61 percent of students meeting standards, up from 46.2 percent a year ago.

“We have a great sense of accomplishment,” says Don Feinstein, executive director of AUSL. At a meeting just yesterday, the principal of Morton outlined what was working at the school. Among the strategies she pinpointed were weekly meetings with teachers about data, targeted interventions and use of a new evaluation tool that incorporates support for teachers in areas where they are struggling, Feinstein notes.

Gains at turnarounds helped drive the biggest test score increase seen in CPS since 2006, the year that the state’s ISAT test was reformatted and rescored. (State education and CPS officials say that there were no substantial changes to the ISAT this year.) In 2006, test scores went up by 20-plus percentage points. This year, scores rose by 3.9 percentage points.

Turnaround schools weren’t the only category of schools that posted improvements. Here are some findings based on a Catalyst Chicago analysis of school-by-school ISAT scores now available on the  CPS website:

  • Traditional neighborhood elementary schools overall saw a 6 percentage point increase in the ISAT composite scores. In 2009-2010, 48 schools had half of their students failing to meet standards. In 2010-2011, that number fell to just 18 schools.

  • More neighborhood elementary schools posted double-digit increases: 91 schools this year, vs.15 last year. Ryerson Elementary, located one and a half miles from Morton, now has 85 percent of its students meeting benchmarks, a 16 percent increase since last year and a 30 percent increase since 2008. Though not a turnaround, Ryerson did get a new principal in 2008.

  • Charter schools also saw about a 4 percentage point increase in composite ISAT scores. Two of the Chicago International Charter Schools—in Irving Park and Belmont-Cragin–were the top scorers among charters; the ones in Washington Park and Roseland are among the worst.

  • Turnaround schools overall posted a 9.4 percentage point increase. The two turnaround elementary schools run by CPS, Fulton and Copernicus (now called Langston), saw only minor improvements since last year but now have about 50 percent of their students meeting standards compared to about 35 percent in 2009. 

Leaders downplay ISAT gains

Chief Education Officer Noemi Donoso noted that the scores on the EXPLORE, a test given to 8th-graders that predicts their college-readiness, did not improve. Some 70 percent of students did not meet benchmarks on the EXPLORE.

Donoso also noted that on the ISAT, only 18 percent of CPS students exceed standards. Research has shown that students need to exceed the standards to have a decent chance of doing well in high school and scoring high enough on college-entrance exams to get into a selective university.

There’s also a huge gap between white, Latino and black students, especially when it comes to the number of students who exceed standards. Some 44 percent of white students exceed standard, but only 17.6 percent of Latino students and 11 percent of African Americans.

“A tremendous gap exists,” said CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. “It shows that what we are doing is not really working.”

Brizard went on to say that the disparity as well as the EXPLORE scores show the need for a longer school day and a longer year, two key parts of his and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s agenda. He also said that the increase in test scores has “nothing at all to do” with whether teachers should get the raises promised to them in their contract. The School Board voted against funding the 4 percent raises on the premise that the district is broke. CPS has a $712 million deficit, according to officials.

Previous administrations, including that of now-U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, touted any increase in ISAT scores, even when those increases were minimal, and attributed it to their education agenda. In pointing out that the ISAT scores lag behind the EXPLORE and other high school standardized tests, Donoso and Brizard are acknowledging a critique often made of the previous administrations’ boasting.

Donoso said the gains in the ISAT might be due to teachers and schools teaching to the test, but added that in the future, she wants schools to focus on college-readiness standards. Plus, within a few years, CPS, as part of a commitment by the State of Illinois, also will adopt the Common Core Standards that most other states will also adopt. These standards will be more rigorous than those assessed by the ISAT.

Donoso and Brizard might not want to celebrate the current ISAT scores because they are worried that once these new standards and tests come along, CPS students will perform poorly.