EDITORIAL: Let’s celebrate that Chicago’s schools are doing better, with caveats
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We call the Chicago Public Schools on the carpet often.
It’s part of our job as an editorial page, and we’ve done that job by telling you, the reader, about dozens of dirty schools that the district’s private contractors failed to clean, kickback scandals old and new, and the negative impact of City Hall’s sorry decision to shut down 50 schools at once in some of the city’s most destitute neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune just published a powerful series documenting the horrifying, decades-long failure to protect children from sexual predators.
Calling CPS to account is important. So is giving credit when it’s due — and we’re happy to start this school year on that note.
Last week, CPS and City Hall made sure to tout the district’s rising graduation rates and test scores. There are caveats to the progress, but the press releases weren’t just smoke-and-mirrors. CPS is no longer the poster child for the failures of urban schools.
It is, in fact, a poster child for laudable gains.
Here’s a look at the numbers:
More graduates: Years ago, fewer than half of CPS students finished high school. As recently as 2011, the graduation rate was still just 56.9 percent. Now, in 2018, over three-fourths of students earn a diploma: The graduation rate is 78.2 percent.
The caveats: Graduation rates vary widely from school to school. Selective schools post stellar stats, such as Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep on the South Side at 96.8 percent. Non-selective neighborhood high schools, such as Gage Park on the Southwest Side and Sullivan High in Rogers Park, have far lower figures, around 60 to 65 percent.
Those numbers have to get better, as do the numbers for African-American and Latino males as a whole. More black and Latino young men are graduating than ever before — 64.7 percent and 77.3 percent, respectively — but that’s still below the citywide average.
The district has set an ambitious goal: an 85 percent graduation rate by 2020. CEO Janice Jackson insists the goal is “achievable.” We’ll see.
More students on-track: University of Chicago researchers have said that the best predictor of high school graduation is whether or not a student is “on track” to graduate in the ninth grade — that is, they’ve earned at least five credits and no more than one “F” in a core course.
The district’s on-track rate is now at 89.4 percent, a solid harbinger for the future.
Teachers and students who do the hard work every day in class deserve the biggest round of applause for making these gains. Give the district credit too, for expanding access to Advanced Placement courses and launching more International Baccalaureate programs (which require rigorous teacher training and accreditation by the IB Organization). Many students rise to the challenge of tougher coursework.
Higher elementary test scores. Scores continue to inch up on the NWEA test: 56.6 percent of elementary students met or exceeded the national average in math and 61.4 percent of students met or exceeded the average in reading.
The caveat: What test are we talking about?
Millions of kids in more than half of school districts across the country take the NWEA, and it’s a good sign that our students are scoring higher on it. But there is less to trumpet on the test that’s the gold standard for national comparisons: the National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes called “the nation’s report card.”
CPS students have historically scored poorly — below the “proficient” level — on the NAEP. That’s still true overall, despite a glimmer of light: Chicago is narrowing the gap with other big urban districts, like Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore and New York City.
Jackson says this “is no longer the CPS of old.” A Stanford University researcher issued an analysis echoing that sentiment last year, showing that Chicago students are improving at a faster rate than students in 96 percent of all school districts in the country.
There’s challenging work ahead, no doubt.
But still cause for a bit of celebration.
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