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CPS reading scores up, but not by much, from 7 years ago

Updated: January 9, 2012 9:10AM

Chicago Public Schools finally showed some real progress in reading on national test results released Wednesday, but only compared to how its students fared at least seven years ago.

The scores in between trended up — but only slightly.

A new report on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress taken by 21 big-city districts was the second analysis in less than a month to indicate that, despite more than a decade of massive investments in reading, Chicago’s elementary-grade reading performance has barely budged for years.

CPS eighth-graders took seven years to finally produce real reading improvement, growing from an average score of 249 to 253 on a 500-point test known as “The Nation’s Report Card” between 2005 and 2011.

Fourth graders took even longer — nine years — to mount real reading gains and move from a 198 to 203 between 2003 and this year.

In between, the city’s flat or slight gains didn’t really amount to any kind of statistically significant improvement, a NAEP analysis of a representative sample of CPS students over time indicates.

Last month, a study by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research found that CPS elementary reading scores on other, higher-stakes tests — including the state’s achievement exams — really had not moved much between 1990 to 2009. To reach that conclusion, researchers adjusted for changes in the tests and study body.

The data from NAEP — considered a harder test than Illinois’ achievement exam — indicates Chicago’s NAEP reading doldrums occurred during a huge reading push ordered by former Mayor Richard M. Daley and carried out by then-Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan, now the nation’s Education Secretary.

The real progress didn’t show up until 2011 — after Ron Huberman took over the Chicago Schools CEO helm in 2009 and shifted the district from Duncan’s emphasis on reading coaches to a new emphasis on data analysis.

“The information we had [from state achievement tests] showed [CPS] was showing great success,” said Peter Cunningham, a top aide to Duncan both when Duncan was Chicago Schools CEO and now as U.S. Secretary of Education. “We weren’t gaming the numbers.

“For some reason or another, we are not seeing the results [now] we thought we were getting. What can it teach us? What can we do differently? Those are the questions Chicago needs to answer,” Cunningham said.

Some good news was buried in the math scores, where Chicago was one of only six big-city districts to show real math improvement since 2009 in eighth-grade. One possibility is that a CPS push, begun under Duncan, to train more eighth-grade teachers to teach algebra was finally showing up in test results.

However, fourth-grade math scores were only up a solid amount if the scores are compared to 2003.

The achievement gap — a top concern of new Chicago Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard — showed no real shrinkage since at least 2003 in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading. In fourth-grade reading, Hispanic and black students needed a decade to produce solid gains; in eighth-grade reading, only Hispanics showed real NAEP progress, and only when compared to their scores from nine years ago.

Chicago’s NAEP reading scores placed it in the middle of the pack of 21 big-city districts, coming in No. 13 in fourth grade and No. 10 in eighth. In math, Chicago placed No. 15 in fourth grade and No. 12 in eighth.

Mike Casserly, executive director of The Council of Great City Schools, said his group’s analysis of big city districts that saw strong NAEP improvement between 2003 and 2009 indicated they had longevity of leaders at the top, had carefully detailed what they wanted kids to know, developed a clear program of instruction that boosted the rigor of classrooms and analyzed data well.

Although Chicago’s leadership was stable over that time period under Duncan, “my sense of it is that the instructional reforms in Chicago were just not coherent or rigorous enough to produce the reading gains that the city really wanted,” Casserly said. “It was doing too many things at one time.

“The reason it was doing so many things is it was trying to figure out what would work. But sometimes doing so many things undercuts your sense of direction.”

One surprise in the 2011 NAEP results was that Atlanta — rocked this year by a cheating scandal involving state tests — produced real math gains in only two years and solid reading improvement in four years in both fourth and eighth grade.

After the state-test cheating was uncovered, an investigation found no evidence Atlanta had cheated on national tests — an indication that reforms in Atlanta are real, Casserly said.

Explained Jack Buckley, Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics: “Students could be improving [on NAEP] even in the face of cheating [on state tests]. It’s not a mutually exclusive thing.”

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