Elementary on-track rate has merit, but no sure-fire predictor of success

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For the last two years, CPS has pioneered the use of an on-track indicator for students in 3rd through 8th grades that now counts for 10 percent of elementary principals’ evaluations.

It’s based on the more widely known “Freshman On-Track” indicator, which has been backed by years of research from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

A soon-to-be-released Consortium report has found evidence that grades and attendance in 6th through 8th grade predict high school success. But there is less evidence when it comes to 3rd through 5th grades, though a New York City study found that attendance and test scores can predict high school graduation in students as young as 4th grade. (LINK TO:)

And, says Consortium Director Elaine Allensworth, the indicators that CPS is using to determine whether younger students are “on track” are far from a guarantee of future academic success.

Students are considered on-track if they have “C” or higher grades in math and reading, a 92 percent or higher attendance rate and two or fewer write-ups for misconduct.

But 92 percent attendance “is not sufficient for getting good grades” in high school, Allensworth says. “[It] gives you 50-50 odds of being on track in 9th grade [and] is what you need to have a chance of graduating high school, but it’s not going to be enough to get the strong grades you are going to need to get into college.”

The same is true of middle-years students who get “C” grades, according to Allensworth.

Attendance works as a high school indicator because 9th-grade course failures are driven mainly by missed classes, Allensworth says, noting that high school students have weaker relationships with teachers and less monitoring from adults to make sure they actually get to class. “Students that are not in the habit of coming to school every day and seeing that as a priority… when things come up, adversities, issues, they are much more likely not to come, or to skip class.”

The Consortium may study how schools are actually using the new elementary on-track metric.

“Is it an indicator that schools are actually able to take action on? And how is it changing their practice?” Allensworth says. “In the high schools, just having the on-track metric made people aware of the importance of 9th grade, but people weren’t sure what they should do about it.”

At first, she says, many high schools did not act on on-track data. But when CPS began producing reports listing which students were veering off-track and which needed credit recovery, Allensworth says, it changed schools’ actions.

“I imagine different schools have different capacity [for] being able to pull the reports from the data system, and then having the time to pull your staff together and actually use the reports to reach out to kids,” Allensworth says, because that was the case with CPS high schools. “There is a capacity issue, always.”

Some schools see results

While the new metric generally lines up with the school district’s rating system–with Level 1 schools having the highest on-track rates and Level 3 schools having the lowest–there are a few exceptions. Six Level 1 schools have on-track rates under 65 percent, and six Level 3 schools have on-track rates over 75 percent.

The Level 3 schools Calmeca and Kershaw both have on-track rates above 80 percent, among the highest in the district. Gregory, McClellan, Prussing, Lowell, Pershing and Ronald Brown elementary schools, on the other hand, all have on-track rates lower than 65 percent despite being top-rated Level 1 schools.

Two principals said the new metric has been a boon to their efforts to improve their schools.

Matthew Ditto, the principal of Andrew Jackson Language Academy, says that having the data available has helped his school “align resources that need to be put in place to help (students) achieve their goals for the year.”

“With attendance, I can see on a daily basis what we are accomplishing,” Ditto explains. “Children who are having attendance issues, I can see that right away, reach out to them and see what is going on.” Staff use the data to arrange meetings with families whose children are struggling with attendance, Ditto says.

While principals have always paid attention to attendance data, Ditto says, “years ago… in order to catch these things it took hours and hours of human resources.”

Students who are getting grades of below “C” in reading and math get extra help in small groups throughout the day, Ditto says.

Brian Metcalf, the principal of Field Elementary, credits the on-track metric with helping him bring his school from a low Level 3 to a high Level 2 in just two years.

Metcalf says that he uses the data to see school-wide and grade-level trends, such as how many students are getting poor grades.

“Let’s say we see a disproportionate number of students receiving D’s or F’s in reading. It helps us as a staff look at, ‘What is our curriculum, and are we implementing it with fidelity?’” Metcalf notes.

The school is also using the data to customize students’ schedules, giving them extra time in math or reading if they are behind in a specific subject and targeting them for before-school and after-school enrichment, which is funded by Field’s community schools program.

“Students are more confident. We have an opportunity to fill in the gaps that they might have missed from all the way to first grade,” Metcalf says. “It caused me to be more intentional, more focused and more granular in our analyses of data.”