Chicago drops public school ratings in favor of a less punitive system for assessing schools

Chicago Public Schools board members say the new policy focuses on improving teaching and learning and creating an optimal educational experience.

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Chicago Public Schools on Wednesday did away with its policy of rating schools from a high of 1-plus to a low of 3.

Chicago Public Schools on Wednesday did away with its policy of rating schools from a high of 1-plus to a low of 3.

Rich Hein | Sun-Times

The Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday voted to replace its school rating policy with one that’s intended to provide information about a range of school characteristics, from how students perform on state tests, to whether instruction is rigorous and student centered, to whether a school environment is healing.

The new accountability policy officially drops a system that labeled schools from a high of 1-plus to a low of 3. CPS stopped rating schools during the pandemic when standardized testing was paused.

That rating system, called the SQRP, was sharply criticized for relying too heavily on test scores and unfairly branding schools. In the past, the labels were also used as justification for closing schools.

“Part of what started this was our communities being very clear about the harm that they felt from a rating system that didn’t just make them feel like it was something wrong with their schools, but something deficient with them as people, as communities, as parents,” said board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who spearheaded the process. “I want to say again publicly that we are done with SQRP. This is not a new SQRP.”

Rather than being punitive, CPS board members say CPS’ new accountability policy focuses on improving teaching and learning, as well as creating an optimal educational experience.

“This is a soft accountability policy that can be model for the nation,” John Easton told the board.

Easton served as an adviser on the policy and formerly served as the director of the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education. Easton started his career in Chicago Public Schools.

“We’re using a flashlight, not a hammer,” he said. “The flashlight is to help us find that place where some support can help and it’s not a hammer … that you’re a bad school because you’re serving kids from impoverished and disenfranchised and disinvested neighborhoods.”

The new system will provide parents as many as 25 measures for each school. Some are similar to previous measures, such as test scores and growth on test scores, attendance, and dropout and college enrollment rates.

Some criticized the inclusion of measures like those, but CPS officials said parents wanted them included.

“We still have to pay attention to student outcomes,” chief portfolio officer Alfonso Carmona said. “They’re still important to our communities, to our parents, and they’re still important to our students and our educators.”

Carmona added that providing this information is also about transparency.

Despite including some long-standing measures, the new policy is a major departure. It holds the district accountable for what it provides the schools, calling these “inputs.” The district will also share information on the opportunities for students to “engage in academic, athletic and arts based enrichment,” as well as how well the school supports the “physical, social, and emotional health of students.”

Several of the elements measure how students and parents feel about the school. One example: how engaged students are in decision making.

CPS officials said the next step is figuring out how to collect and create all this information. Some will come from surveys of parents and students, while other parts will require principals to report activities. The school district is supposed to have a dashboard available by fall 2024.

The new accountability policy veers away from any rating, but board members approved a separate policy to label schools in one of three categories — “probation,” “remediation” or “good standing” — to comply with state requirements. These labels will be based on the state’s accountability policy, which applies similar standards used in CPS’ SQRP rating system.

Lisa Jean Walker, an educational researcher, asked the board to reject the state accountability labels. She said the labels mirror ones used in criminal justice systems and CPS schools where at least 90% of the students are Black are disproportionately on probation — a term, she points out, from the criminal justice system.

“Going forward, CPS aims to develop a strong … healthy culture of continuous improvement,” Walker said. “But under the new accountability policy, the schools that most need to be engaged by this culture will continue to be branded as low performing. Please commit to changing these kinds of laws.”

Todd-Breland emphasized these labels will not be used in any way to judge schools or penalize them.

The school district has been working on developing this new policy since 2019, and Chicago Board of Education President Miguel del Valle said getting it approved is the highlight of his tenure. He will leave the board when his term ends next month.

“I’m gonna feel like I accomplished something that’s significant for not just CPS, the state of Illinois, but for the entire country,” he said.

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