More students scored above national norms this past year on the new standardized tests CPS is using than in the previous school year.

About 51.5 percent of elementary school students are performing at national norms in reading and 49 percent in math, compared to around 46 percent in both categories in 2013, CPS officials announced Thursday. Scores improved in every grade, with 8th-graders scoring above national norms.

In contrast to past practice, CPS did not simultaneously release school-by-school scores, which allow for analysis that can show whether gains were largely at certain types of schools or across the board. Chief of Accountability John Barker said he plans to release school-level data next Friday.

The key is getting more detailed information, said Paul Zavitkovsky, leadership coach and assessment specialist at UIC’s Urban Education Leadership Program. “Anytime test scores go up it is promising, but until they break it out on family income and race and ethnicity, then we do not know what is going on,” he said. “Those demographics make a big difference.”

CPS did provide some averages for the schools designated to take in students from closed schools. In general, there was little movement, and the schools remained substantially below national norms. In math, scores decreased 4 tenths of a percent, and 34 percent of students were at national norms. In reading, scores increased less than 1 percent, and 38 percent of students were at national norms.

These so-called welcoming schools had extra resources that allowed them to keep class sizes small and provide additional support.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett described the citywide gains as “incredibly encouraging. … This is saying that a lot of hard work is going on at the schools.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel also issued a statement. “Improvements in every grade demonstrate that we are building a strong foundation upon which Chicago students can grow and succeed.”

Byrd-Bennett said she thinks “welcoming” schools are headed in the right direction. “I think that in another year, we will see improvements,” she said.

NWEA replaced ISAT

In addition to the NWEA, CPS students had to take the ISAT this year, as it is still being used by the state for accountability. CPS officials say they just recently got ISAT scores from the state and will soon release them.

The ISAT is being phased out because it is not aligned with new Common Core standards, which are seen as more rigorous. Beginning in the upcoming school year, Illinois will use a new test aligned with Common Core, called the PARCC.

CPS officials decided to transition to the NWEA because it is aligned with Common Core and they wanted students to be ready for the PARCC. NWEA will still be used next year, even though PARCC scores will be available. 

Beginning next year, growth in test scores will be part of the CPS accountability system for teachers and principals as well as schools. CPS will use the NWEA for that.

However, Byrd-Bennett said she does not believe that NWEA growth being factored into evaluations had anything to do with the better test scores. Instead, she says that she, unlike other CEOs, have set a district plan. Her plan has lead to professional development being aligned with standards being taught in class, Byrd-Bennett said.

Also, the district is now using more “personalized learning instruments,” which are mostly computer programs that differentiate instruction based on what students are deficient in, she said. “Personalized learning instruments are not grade specific, but content specific,” she said. “… Technology is an incredible tool to do it.”

But Zavitkovsky also notes that CPS has been improving faster than the state for about five years. However, test scores are a lagging indicator, meaning that the reason for their change usually starts about five years before it happens.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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