Grades and attendance — not test scores — matter for middle schoolers: U. of C. researchers

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Schools that want to prepare their students for college had better focus on getting their middle schoolers to class every day and on helping children raise their grades instead of their standardized test scores.

That’s what researchers from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research say in a new report published Thursday called “Looking Forward to High School and College.

Coinciding with the release of the new research is the announcement of a new program for 11 Chicago Public Schools-run schools plus 23 more managed by the Academy for Urban School Leadership to help their middle schoolers make a solid transition to high school.

Building on previous work on the value of keeping ninth-graders on track to graduate by making sure they don’t fail more than one core course or miss class, Consortium researchers said the same trends appear in middle school, too

“There’s definitely students that we can already see are at risk for failing in high school and we can identify them throughout the middle grade years, and those are students that are chronically absent or getting F’s in their classes already in the middle grades,” said consortium director Elaine Allensworth, “and we know those students are set up for failure if we keep on as business as usual for them.”

Middle Grades Report

The report examined a cohort of students in Chicago Public Schools from fifth to 11th grade using academic records, survey data and census information on their residential neighborhood. The group ninth grade for the first time during the 2009-10 school year.

Middle schoolers who want to succeed in college, not just get in, need to turn up to school every single day and not just pass their classes, but get mostly A’s, she said.

Grades over an entire year are more telling than standardized tests taken on a single day because they require consistent effort, showing up, doing well across different kinds of courses and assignments over months, Allensworth said, adding, “If they were subjective, they would not predict later outcomes.” A’s and B’s were found to be surprisingly consistent school to school, the researchers found.

“If you made gains in their attendance or their grades, you could actually see much better outcomes later on in high school and college,” she said. ”So here we are putting all this effort on test scores and being very systematic, and yet even with the biggest gains, we’re not going to get as much. . . . We just don’t have the same kind of systematic efforts around attendance, improving attendance, improving the effort, getting kids to work harder and get better grades.”

The research has been presented to some CPS schools. The district requires several standardized tests a year and uses scores from one round to evaluate its teachers and calculate each school’s rating.

But CPS apparently doesn’t automatically calculate students’ GPA in its data reporting system and will have to find a way to do so for schools.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett agreed that “attendance and grades play an essential role in student’s success in elementary school, high school and beyond, as evidenced by the fact we have successfully implemented initiatives that have resulted in improved attendance rates in recent years,” she wrote in an email.

“However, standardized tests both help inform classroom instruction and gauge student achievement, while also providing students, teachers and schools with a universal measure of performance,” she said.

Meanwhile, some middle schoolers will get help transitioning to high school through the new Success Project, launched Thursday at Claremont Academy Elementary School by another faction of the University’s Urban Education Institute.

That means 10 more schools on the South and West Sides that have students in grades six, seven and eight are getting a coordinator who’ll monitor GPA, attendance and teach a college readiness course called “6 to 16” (for sixth grade to 16th grade) that helps students think about how middle school, high school and college might align to take them where they want to go in life, said John Gasko, the Urban Education Institute’s managing director. The $3.8 million program lasts for three years, he said.

The course seeks to “help a student think through choices aligned to their own sense of purpose and destiny,” Gasko said.

An 11th school, Cesar E. Chavez Multicultural Academic Center Elementary School in the Back of the Yards, received staff training to continue work they’ve already started.

And 23 more schools managed by AUSL also will use the “6 to 16” curriculum.

Principal Barton Dassinger said Chavez has organized high school tours on weekends for its students for several years, and asks its middle schoolers to keep binders of information they learn about the high schools that interest them. Every eighth-grader must apply to at least five high schools, be they CPS, charter or private schools.

“We require our middle-school kids to start learning about high schools really early,” he said.

Outside partnerships bring in mentors for kids who struggle to come to school and provide interview and resume-writing skills for students, Dassinger said. And Chavez hosts its own high school fair and free Saturday prep classes for high school admissions exams.

“We really want to make sure they’ve got a resource at the school,” Dassinger said. “We really want our kids to have a choice in the high school they end up going to.”

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