Opinion: Stop Chicago’s test-based high school madness

SHARE Opinion: Stop Chicago’s test-based high school madness

Mumbai, India, mid-1950s: My father and many of his friends spent their childhoods preparing for one test. One test that would decide whether they continued to spend their lives in poverty or win the lottery for a chance of getting ahead. Children attended school all day and then studied late into each night so they could secure one of a few coveted seats in the right high school. Twenty years later my father immigrated to the United States so that when he started a family, we wouldn’t be condemned to the same broken system. Fast forward fifteen more years, the Pawar family moves again, this time fleeing the City of Chicago for a suburban school district.

Chicago, Ill., 2015: Children begin to prepare for Chicago’s selective public high school entrance exam as early as 10 years old – spending hours on homework and stressing over earning straight As. Test-shaming and peer pressure are the norm. Parents scrounge together resources for tutors and admissions consultants. Parents peer pressure one another. To what end? Each year 25,000 eighth graders compete for 3,600 seats across eleven selective enrollment schools. A near-lifetime of preparation to get into the right high school. In a system which serves a few and neglects the whole.


Like many families, mine fled to the suburbs 30 years ago to seek out stability and equity. To seek out a stable neighborhood K-12 system. A system where children grow up together and then enter high school together. They may get tracked but every student has access to top-notch academic and extra-curricular programs. A system where every child receives a selective enrollment experience. A system which sustains property values, drives economic development, and steals away thousands of Chicago families each year.

Chicago is doing itself a tremendous disservice by replicating an educational pattern that helped force my family out of India. The narrow focus on selective enrollment high schools is stressing families, harming neighborhood high schools, and undermining long-term growth in Chicago.

In Chicago, we gin the numbers by grouping the highest scoring students in eleven schools. Suburban high schools serve everyone. For perspective, the average ACT score at Northside Prep is 30.7. The average ACT score at Evanston Township High School is 23, 24.3 for Maine South, and 27.4 for New Trier. Politicians like me point to state and national rankings (based on average test scores) and parents follow our lead. Children follow the lead of their parents and the vicious cycle continues. Instead of community anchors, neighborhood schools are emptied out as children travel across town in search of schools with out-of-this-world test score averages. In the end, most children lose out because of our narrow focus on eleven schools.

It is time we develop a neighborhood K-12 vision for all of Chicago — and provide every family a cohesive system from kindergarten until graduation.

To begin:

  1. Investing in neighborhood high schools must be the top priority for the City of Chicago and CPS.
  2. The City of Chicago and CPS should develop a coordinated citywide vision to create regional K-12 systems. Neighborhood schools should be the starting point for everything we do.
  3. CPS should create neighborhood seats in existing selective enrollment schools.
  4. CPS should create programming in neighborhood schools where children can take regular, advanced, and AP classes and flow freely among tracks to explore interests.
  5. Stop opening selective enrollment schools and refocus attention and resources on neighborhood high schools. Every child in every neighborhood deserves access to a great high school.

The current system is broken. A childhood spent under stress. An annual cycle of heartbreak. An annual migration out of Chicago. To fix what’s broken, neighborhood schools, especially high schools should be the top priority in terms of funding and resources. And if neighborhood high schools continue to be neglected because our system props up eleven selective enrollment schools based on ginning the numbers, then it’s time to rethink selective enrollment altogether. That time is now. It’s time to build our city around stability, equity, and neighborhood based K-12 systems.

 Ameya Pawar is alderman of the 47th Ward on Chicago’s North Side

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