Chicago has long been seen as a leader in education reform, and the apparent progress here even helped elevate Arne Duncan from district CEO to U.S. Secretary of Education.

But a study released today by the Consortium on Chicago School Research claims there’s been no significant improvement in the key area of elementary school reading, and that the racial achievement gap has worsened over the past two decades since the advent of the first phase of school reform.

Black students, more than any other group, were the ones most left behind, according to the study, “Trends In Chicago’s Schools Across Three Eras of Reform.”

Researchers also turned another long-held belief on its head: that elementary schools have improved while high schools have stagnated. According to publicly reported data on state tests, the percentage of Chicago students meeting or exceeding standards on the ISAT exam rose from 38 percent in 2001 to 76 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, scores on the state high school exam have only inched up, giving the impress that high schools, as a whole, were still failing.

But in this latest analysis, the Consortium found little progress in elementary schools. In fact, researchers said the most significant gain among CPS students has been the 1-point gain by high school juniors on the ACT college entrance exam. The gain, while seemingly incremental, is statistically significant: It occurred despite the lack of achievement growth among students entering high school, as well as an increase in the number of students, including low-achievers, taking the ACT.

ACT scores rose among all students, although more for white students than Latinos, and more for Latino students than for African-Americans.

Researchers also reconfirmed the significant progress high schools have made in raising graduation rates.

Still, they note that few Chicago Public Schools graduates are ready for college.

While sobering, the points made in the report are not entirely new. For years, the district’s performance on the National Assessment on Educational Progress has been flat in reading, with only small gains in math. Overall, Chicago’s NAEP scores remain lower than scores for almost any other urban district.

In recent years, Duncan has acknowledged that the ISAT is a weak measure of achievement and called on states to adopt a more rigorous, nationally-normed test. He says that he simply reported the results as he received them from the state, which revamped the test in 2006, making it easier to meet standards

The lack of progress by African-American students was in both math and reading. While the math scores of all CPS students rose, improvements were smallest among African-American students, and in reading they did not improve at all.

Black students have long been concentrated in schools that made the smallest gains. According to the report, under former CEO Paul Vallas–Era 2 of reform, following on the heels of decentralization after the first reform law took effect in 1990–the district’s worst schools made some gains. But in Era 3—the Duncan years—the schools that needed the most improvement did the worst.

Integrated schools, in which at least 30 percent of the students were white or Asian, were the most likely to show improving test scores in all eras, especially Era 3, according to the report.

Jitu Brown, a community organizer for Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, says that he is not surprised by this finding. Brown says he saw many schools that were on the upward trajectory in the late 1990s lose momentum and go backwards as Duncan focused on opening new schools, many of which were charter schools.

“Sit down with parents from Price or Fuller or Robinson, and they will all tell you the same story,” he said. “These schools have been disinvested in.”

Brown says he hopes this report, along with others that have shown that charter schools are not, on the whole, producing better results, will light a spark in the community. “The report is just a beginning,” he said. “It is our job to do something about it.”

Stuart Luppescu, a Consortium researcher and the lead author of the report, says that it confirms something that other Consortium reports have noted: Schools in communities with little social capital have the hardest time improving.

“Generally African Americans live in neighborhoods that have fewer social resources for school improvement,” Luppescu said. “Neighborhoods that have more resources bring them to bear on the schools.”

Current CEO Jean-Claude Brizard also latched onto the achievement gap issue, saying  in a statement that “it’s simply unacceptable.”

Brizard sought to tie the findings to the need to lengthen the school day, the top item on his and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s agenda.

But this study raises other serious questions that Brizard and education leaders need to confront as they look to the future. Luppescu notes that the lack of improvement was partially hidden from public scrutiny by the the focus on the percentage of students meeting and exceeding standards. Some schools made apparent gains by pushing students close to the “meets” level just over the bar. Reporting average scores, rather than the benchmark percentages, would have made the progress, or lack of it, more readily apparent.

Also, the state scoring system changed, with the same skill levels receiving slightly higher scores in later years than in earlier years.

In fact, one of the key messages of this report was “the publicly reported statistics used to hold schools and districts accountable for making academic progress are not accurate measures of progress.”

In 2014, the state of Illinois will require all schools to assess students using a new, multi-state test aimed at measuring students’ knowledge of the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states and are considered more rigorous than current state standards.

Yet many decisions remain to be made about how states will report the results of the test.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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