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School report cards: Skinner North, Northside Prep take top spots in city

L-R are : Assistant Principal Katie MagnusPaige Prather 3rd grade class ErMaginSkinner North Classical School Chicago. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

L-R are : Assistant Principal Katie Magnuson and Paige Prather in the 3rd grade class of Erin Magina at Skinner North Classical School in Chicago. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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2012 Illinois school report cards: Find your school
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Updated: December 1, 2012 6:08AM

Chicago Public Schools claimed eight of the 10 highest-scoring elementary schools in the state this year by adding Skinner North Classical, a relatively new school for smart kids, to the elite ranks.

In DuPage County, Hinsdale District 181 batted a clean sweep, with all seven of its elementaries and both of its middle schools ranking within the state’s top 100.

And in Will County, Lincoln-Way District 210 earned the distinction of placing all four of its high schools among the 100 highest-scoring in the state.

Those are some of the results of a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of state achievement test data released across the state Wednesday. The analysis reflects the average scores of students within schools, rather than the percent passing state standards — a bar even state education officials concede is too low for grades three through eight.

The annual release of data from district and public school State Report Cards comes as State Supt. Christopher Koch once again spotlighted the nagging “disconnect’’ between the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, passed by 82 percent of students in grades three through eight, and the Prairie State Achievement Exam, passed by only 51.2 percent of high school juniors.

“Certainly it has been a longstanding problem and one we’ve heard about from schools for years,’’ Koch said. “This disconnect has led folks to have low expectations.’’

‘A lot of potential’

The Sun-Times analysis of results from tests taken this past spring show Chicago, with 87 percent of its students from low-income households, once again claimed some of the best and many of the worst-scoring schools in the state

Led largely by the district’s selective-enrollment and magnet schools, Chicago grabbed 13 of the state’s top-50 elementary spots — but also 38 of the bottom 50.

For its middle-grade performance, Chicago claimed 19 of the top 50 — and 34 of the bottom 50. And among the state’s high schools, Chicago rated five of the top 50, but 42 of the bottom 50.

Chicago’s Northside College Prep, which bases admissions on tests, continued to hold the No. 1 high school spot in the state, with Winnetka’s New Trier Township High School claiming the top suburban spot — and No. 4 statewide.

New to the top-10 elementary fold was No. 1 Skinner North Classical, which opened four years ago in the shadow of the Cabrini-Green housing development as a Chicago classical school that bases all admissions on tests. It topped its sister school, No. 7 Skinner West, which is slowly converting to a partially selective, partially neighborhood school.

However, Skinner North Classical’s ranking was based on the average score of about 60 students in grades three and four — only one classroom per grade, while Skinner West’s ranking is based on far more classrooms, in grades three through five.

Since its opening four years ago, Skinner North Classical, near Division and Halsted, has attracted students from as far north as Jefferson Park and as far south as Beverly, said Principal Ethan Netterstrom.

In 2011, when Skinner’s first crop of kids grew old enough to take a statewide test, 100 percent of them not just met state standards, all 30 or so of them hit the much higher “exceeded” mark in both third-grade reading and third-grade math, Netterstrom said.

“Kids come in with a lot of potential, and our teachers really tap into that and help foster their achievement and growth,’’ Netterstrom said.

In 2012, Skinner’s second crop of third-graders also passed all their ISATs, but only 96.7 percent of them “exceeded’’ in reading — a still-enviable number. That “exceeds’’ dip came even though the school was among 13 Chicago public schools to “pioneer” a longer day last school year.

It is just such testing oddities that have led a growing number of educators and parents to question the wisdom of putting so much emphasis on one test, given to a different set of kids every year. Plus, small populations of tested kids can produce especially wild fluctuations in results.

Skinner North’s “exceeds” dip was based on “a handful of kids,’’ Netterstrom said. “Every kid is [worth] like 3 percent when we are talking about that many kids. Any of them could have had a good or a bad day.’’

Key for the school right now, Netterstrom said, is fostering a sense of “community’’ in a building populated with kids from across the city. Students take turns as the “star of the week,’’ sharing details about their family, pets and hobbies. They are encouraged to build an “intrinsic motivation’’ to do the right thing and “hone their own behavior” as part of a “responsive classroom’’ program, Netterson said.

“Test scores are just one indicator,’’ Netterstrom said. “I know it’s exciting and parents like it. . . . I’m more excited about the responsive classroom approach we take. . . . That’s really more important to me than the test scores.’’

‘No magic pill’

Chicago’s Northside College Prep, which bases admissions on tests, continued to hold the No. 1 high school spot in the state, with Winnetka’s New Trier Township High School claiming the top suburban spot — and No. 4 statewide.

No. 41 Hinsdale South finally joined its brother school, No. 5 Hinsdale Central, amid the state’s top 50 high schools. Hinsdale South, with 23 percent low-income kids, took longer to make it into the top 50 than Hinsdale Central, with 5 percent low-income students.

“We believe very strongly that any success academically is cumulative success,’’ said Hinsdale South Principal Brian Waterman. “There is not a magic pill to academic achievement.’’

Waterman credited several programs introduced in the last few years that help pull up struggling kids and challenge more middle-of-the-road ones.

That includes, for struggling freshmen who need help in certain subjects, a double-period algebra class; a freshmen reading as well as a freshmen English class; and a freshmen science class taught by both a science teacher and a reading specialist.

Hinsdale South has also managed to expand the percent of graduates who have taken at least one college-level Advanced Placement course to 61 percent in 2012, up from 48 percent four years ago.

It did so by asking teachers to recruit some 25 sophomores to enroll in a junior-year AP English class who might not normally consider such a rigorous class. Such kids must take a summer AP “bridge’’ class first to get them ready for the tougher work ahead.

An AP psychology push uses a similar recruitment approach, but offers its extra support during the regular school year, via an extra class with the AP psychology teacher.

“With those two programs, we now have 40 to 50 students who would not have been taking AP who are now taking advantage of that opportunity,’’ Waterman said.

Hinsdale 181:
clean sweep

In the same geographic area, all nine elementary and middle schools in affluent Hinsdale District 181 landed within the state’s top-scoring 100 — and eight made the top 50.

It’s those kind of results that trigger the calls Supt. Renee Schuster gets every month from parents considering relocating to District 181.

Schuster said she believes a new writing approach actually helped reading and math scores. Last year, the district began focusing on teaching writing using a “writer’s workshop’’ model that emphasizes the gradual creation of a piece of writing and consistent feedback from teachers. Schuster said the effort seemed to have paid dividends in the parts of the state reading and math tests that require short written answers.

The district also uses “pre-assessments’’ to make sure students are not spending time on a lesson they don’t need to learn. Explained Schuster: “Instructional time is very precious.’’

Statewide, 2012 ISAT reading, math and science results were mixed, with the biggest change registering as a 2.4 percentage point drop in the percent passing sixth-grade reading. PSAE tests showed little movement, except for a 2.5-percentage-point increase in the science passing rate.

Among seniors statewide, the second year of a new way of calculating the state’s graduation rate — based on the percent of students who graduate in four years, rather than in five — saw the on-time graduation rate drop from 83.8 percent to 82.3 percent.

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