Still Left Behind: Student learning in Chicago

Civic Committee of The Commercial Club of Chicago
June 2009

It's hard to quibble when a paper opens thusly: "Most of Chicago's students drop out or fail." That's the main point (and the first point) that this paper, an annual report on the state of Chicago's schools, hopes to drive home. Though Chicago Public Schools has been all back-patting and positive press releases about incredible gains made in the last decade, the Civic Committee is here to set the record straight. Those gains were made in the elementary grades only, they explain, while high schools have stagnated or declined. And, though the elementary scores have improved, much of the gains can be attributed to a new state test, easier cut scores, and lower standards that were implemented from Springfield in 2006. According to CPS, composite third through eighth grade scores in both math and reading on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) jumped from 38.4 percent meeting or exceeding proficiency in 2004 to 65.4 percent in 2008. In eighth grade math alone, scores jumped from 33 percent in 2004 to 70 percent in 2008. To discover how much of these gains is due to actual increases in learning as opposed to testing changes, the Committee compared Chicago scores to state-wide scores. They averaged the state-wide gains and subtracted them from Chicago's gains, thus neutralizing the effects of testing and standards changes. The results are sobering: Adjusted composite ISAT scores for grades three through eight in reading and math went from 27.5 percent in 2004 to 32.1 percent in 2008. That's hardly the 25 point gain broadcast by CPS; while Springfield was transparent about lowering standards they thought were too high, CPS continues to promote these incredible gains as authentic. In fact, when we looked at 2003 and 2006 ISAT scores in our Proficiency Illusion IL state report, we found that that state's cut scores, especially in math, were lowered substantially in that time period. The Civics Committee report has garnered attention because the CEO of CPS in recent years was none other than now-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. When Obama announced his appointment, the significant gains made by Chicago students were one of his selling points; this study casts serious doubt on those figures. The Civics Committee thinks the solution is an external auditor to rigorously evaluate student achievement. Meanwhile, this report is definitely worth a read (and there are tons more bleak data inside, especially on high schools), though it might make you want to cry. Read it here.

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