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CPS high schools show strong gains in ACT and state test scores


Composite ACT scores
Illinois score reflects the last ACT tests taken by members of that year's graduating class, at both public and private schools.
Chicago score reflects the ACT score of that year's juniors at Chicago Public Schools from the test administered during their state achievement tests.

Updated: September 23, 2012 6:25AM

Chicago public high schools — long the district’s Achilles’ heel — posted strong gains in state achievement tests and ACT scores under the first full year of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s watch, data released Wednesday indicated.

Emanuel called the scores "great news," while his Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said the growth was “phenomenal.” Brizard added, “I won’t take credit. It belongs to my teachers and principals.’’

Chicago’s average ACT score soared to its highest level in at least 11 years, jumping from 17.2 last year to 17.6. That’s still well shy of the 18 generally considered minimally acceptable and the 20 CPS officials have used as a goal.

The overall ACT increase was the biggest in eight years, in part because it followed a dip in 2011, when the system weathered three different Schools CEOs.

Other promising signs were the increase in the percent of students who met college-ready benchmarks on all four ACT subject matter tests. That number, though dismal, rose from 7.9 percent last year to 8.9 percent this year. Meanwhile, the percent of CPS juniors who did not meet any college-ready benchmarks on any ACT subject matter test dropped sizeably, from 58.5 percent to 53.4 percent, CPS data indicated.

The ACT scores supplied by the district were achieved by CPS juniors on Day One of the Prairie State Achievement Exam. With the results from Day Two of the PSAE included, 31 percent of CPS juniors passed their state exams this year — up 2.7 percentage points. A huge increase in science, of 4.4 percentage points, helped pull up the average.

Brizard credited a new focus on “recalibrating people to look at what is needed to be college ready.’’ Schools in Chicago, and elsewhere, in recent years have been looking beyond the ACT composite to try to get more students to meet college-ready benchmarks, which are supposed to indicate that students are prepared enough in a subject to get at least a C in it in college.

Brizard also cited the work of new network chiefs who tried to identify the “best practices’’ of the system’s high-gaining schools, both non-charter and charter, and then shared those practices with the school principals they supervised.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey noted that the huge gains reported by the system come just as CPS is lengthening the school day this coming school year, instituting a tougher curriculum, and changing its teacher evaluation system.

“Wow. If they are getting record success, why do we need a longer day?’’ asked Sharkey, among the CTU officials now negotiating a new contract with the district. “Now it turns out, before we had all these changes, we were actually improving at a record pace.

“On some level, the problem with the stories we’re told about what’s wrong with our schools is that it’s so breathless, we never have time to assess what’s working and what’s not working.”

Countered Brizard, “The growth is phenomenal, but we have not arrived. We have a lot of work to do. No one should be sitting on their laurels.’’

Meanwhile, state data released Wednesday indicated Illinois’ average ACT score held steady at 20.9 — the highest composite among the nine states that test 100 percent of their 2012 public school graduates.

In addition, the percent of Illinois 2012 graduates meeting college-ready benchmarks in all four ACT subjects jumped from 23 percent to 25 percent. That put Illinois’s college-ready percent at the national average, even though far more students are required to take the ACT in Illinois than in other states.

The Illinois results released Wednesday reflect the last ACT test taken by 2012 graduates of public and private schools. Chicago released a different ACT number on Wednesday — that produced by juniors on Day One of the state test.

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