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Study: No real progress in CPS grade school reading in 20 years



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Updated: November 15, 2011 8:46AM

So after waves and waves of reform, you thought Chicago public elementary schools had made tremendous progress in the last 20 years?

Think again.

Despite millions of dollars in fixes and programs, Chicago’s elementary grade reading scores have barely budged over the last two decades, a new report by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research has found.

Math scores improved only “incrementally” in those grades, and racial gaps in both subjects increased, with African American students falling the most behind other groups, especially in reading — an area pushed heavily under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

But the good news in a unique study called “Trends in Chicago’s Schools Across Three Eras of Reform: Summary of Key Findings” is that Chicago Public Schools made “dramatic improvement” in its high school graduation rate over almost two decades. Less than half of CPS freshmen graduated by age 19 in 1990, compared to about two thirds today, the study said.

Plus, during the later half of that time period, the average CPS ACT score rose from 16.2 in 2001 to 17.2 in 2009, controlling for changes in student demographics, the study found.

“What’s surprising is the results we came up with are the opposite of what publicly reported statistics show,” said the Consortium’s Stuart Luppescu, lead author of the study. “Publicly reported statistics show the elementary schools improving, and the high schools have been flat.”

While high schools have long been considered the system’s Achilles heel, the study indicates CPS high schools “managed to accomplish a miracle,” said Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education. Although each year of arriving freshmen showed up underprepared and not much more capable than the batch before them, high schools held on to an increasing number of them, and prodded them into improved ACT scores, Radner said.

However, Radner said, after years of news conferences in which Daley trumpeted gains in elementary reading scores, “in the end, the emperor doesn’t have as many clothes as we thought.” She blamed too much teaching to mandatory tests that emphasized basic skills or contained low thresholds for passing.

In other words, Radner said, too many schools were focusing on “a centimeter test, instead of an inch test.”

Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard immediately seized on the findings as proof of the need for the longer school day pushed by his boss, Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Said Brizard in a statement: “This report reinforces the need for students to have more time with teachers in the classroom to receive the instruction they need to be college and career ready.”

The Consortium was able to use a long lens to look at the progress of Chicago Public Schools by converting the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills given to CPS elementary students from 1990 to 2005 to the same scale used on the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests given to public school kids statewide since 2006.

Using this single measuring stick for elementary schools, it looked at average test scores over three “eras” of reform, from 1990 to 1995 — during the early years of the Chicago School Reform Act and the establishment of local school councils until Daley’s 1995 takeover; over the tenure of Daley’s first Schools CEO, Paul Vallas — from 1995 to 2001; and then over the tenure of Daley’s second Schools CEO, now U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan — from 2001 through 2009. High schools were evaluated based on graduation rates and ACTs required of every public school junior starting in 2001.

Consortium researchers also conducted a series of technical adjustments to correct for a battery of test changes, scoring inconsistencies and shifting demographics over time.

Elementary-grade scores strung out over this more even-keeled measuring stick showed “only incremental gains in math and almost no growth in reading” over 20 years even though publicly reported statistics indicated CPS had made “tremendous progress” in those subjects over that time, the report said.

Among the report’s major messages is that “publicly reported statistics used to hold schools and districts accountable for making academic progress are not accurate measures of progress.” Changes to the state tests, including changes in content and scoring , makes “year over year comparisons nearly impossible without complex statistical analyses, such as those undertaken for this report,” Consortium researchers contended.

Luppescu blamed the publicly reported gains that vanished under further scrutiny on not only test changes but on state reporting methods that divide kids into those who passed or didn’t pass state standards. The passing bar is too low and crude of a measuring stick, Luppescu said, and schools would be better served looking at their average score rather than the percent who passed.

Timothy Shanahan, director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois-Chicago, cautioned that the kind of technical adjustments the Consortium performed is tricky business.

“Have they made the right changes? I’m not sure,” Shanahan said. But he fully agreed with the Consortium’s conclusions that a myriad of changes to state tests over time have made them a poor measuring stick for progress.

Some hoped the report would trigger an end to what they call excessive testing. A typical CPS student takes more than 100 off-the-shelf tests by graduation, said Sharon Schmidt, head of the Chicago Teachers Union’s testing committee.

“Since Vallas took over the schools in 1995, there’s been a big test focus,” Schmidt said. “School reform has really been a lot about tests and test scores. Hopefully, Mr. Brizard ... will see the increased amount of testing under Mayor Daley’s school board did not help increase scores.”

Meanwhile, state education officials said the rigor and possibly the stability of Illinois tests should improve once the state moves to a new test, tied to higher “common core” standards, in the 2014-2015 school year. It will be given at least twice in one school year, so schools can use it to evaluate the progress of individual students within the same school year, rather than comparing this year’s third graders to last year’s third graders.

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