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CPS reading scores dip; barely 1 in 4 read at grade level

Students participate during class at Orozco Fine Arts & Sciences Elementary School, 1940 W 18th St. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Reading scores dipped slightly for Chicago Public Schools students in 2016 in a district where, state tests showed, barely one in four students could read at grade level.

But with the scores of about 1 million public school children across Illinois also decreasing on PARCC reading tests — from 37.7 percent in 2015 to 36.2 percent in 2016 — and with changes to the length of the hours-long test, a top CPS official has more questions about the test itself for the Illinois State Board of Education.

“Because of decline throughout the state, it’s apparent something happened” with the PARCC test, CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson told the Sun-Times.

Jackson said CPS’ test scores rose on a different test used to rate Chicago’s teachers and schools as well as a respected national exam. So with CPS on the verge of using PARCC to rate elementary schools and evaluate teachers as soon as next year, “we just have to make sure there’s alignment with all three tests.”

Those scores, and a wealth of other data tracked by ISBE, was made public Monday. Parents will receive their child’s scores in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a test designed to measure ability to do analytical work.

They’ll see that while English/language arts proficiency decreased from 28.5 to 27.4 percent, Chicago’s math scores rose, from 20.6 percent to 23.5 percent, as did the state’s, from 28.2 percent to 30.5 percent. The state has not yet parsed results for individual charter campuses.

ISBE officials said Friday the test’s length shrunk, but content didn’t change.

State Supt. Tony Smith said that scores “held mostly steady, a testament to the commitment and resourcefulness” of school leaders.

Main hallway at Orozco Fine Arts & Sciences Elementary School, 1940 W 18th St. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times
Main hallway at Orozco Fine Arts & Sciences Elementary School, 1940 W 18th St. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Click on a marker to see school test results

Still, just one in four CPS students can do reading and math basics at a pace that will prepare them for college. For Illinois, it’s one in three.Critics say standardized test results reflect wealth, so the best scores happen at schools with well-off children.

In Chicago, that’s typically true, with the top composite score by an open enrollment school reported at Lincoln Elementary, among the district’s wealthiest. Several schools that require entrance exams where most children tested proficient also have fewer than one in five low-income students.

Several CPS grade schools where at least nine of 10 children are considered poor beat city and state averages.

Zapata Elementary Academy, 2728 S. Kostner Ave., focuses on reading and writing, longtime Principal Ruth Garcia said. Most of her staff can teach bilingual students in the top-rated school of about 800 until they’re ready for English instruction.

Staff stability also has paid off, she said, with some 35 percent of students proficient in English and 37.8 percent in math.

“The rules haven’t changed, the outlook hasn’t changed, the vision hasn’t changed,” Garcia said.

Orozco Fine Arts & Sciences Elementary School, 1940 W. 18th St., has about 41 percent of children now proficient in English and language arts and 34.2 percent in math.

Second-year Principal Efrain Martinez said teachers plan across grade levels, so the fourth-grade teachers know what third- and fifth-graders are up to.

He said staff now talk to students about the cause of conflicts instead of jumping to punish, cutting the number of suspensions. And Orozco kids who cooperate in class take part in fun monthly classes in soccer, knitting and karate.

“Teachers play with the students. They love it. They really want to participate in these activities,” he said.

Across CPS, a troubling 43 schools serving low-income students reported less than 5 percent of students proficient in academic basics. According to state data and CPS, for six high schools — neighborhood and charter alike — that percentage was zero.

In PARCC’s last year in high schools, the 6.4 percent of CPS students skipping the test outpaced the 2.5 percent statewide, yet more Chicago students were tested than last year when 10 percent skipped it. At 12 high schools, less than half of eligible students took the test, which doesn’t count for CPS ratings or college admission.

Some principals told the Sun-Times that while they offered the test as required, they leaned on other ways of measuring how older students are faring, including ACT scores.

That’s wasn’t the case at Amundsen High School, a far North Side school with an 89 percent poverty rate where 47 percent of students tested proficient in reading.

“We took the test seriously,” Principal Anna Pavichevich said, adding she buys into the common core standards that promote complex tasks, “higher degrees of rigor, more opportunities for students to think in a way that is very college-oriented.”

And now they’ll be ready for the common core-aligned SAT, she said.

Emiliano Zapata Elementary Academy, 2728 S Kostner Ave. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times
Emiliano Zapata Elementary Academy, 2728 S Kostner Ave. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Contributing: Andrew Grimm and Darnell Little