Last spring, students in Chicago’s public elementary schools made their best showing in a long time on most of the standardized achievement tests they take.

In all grade levels tested, scores on the math, science and social studies sections of the state IGAP tests hit a new high. So, too, did the percentages of students in grades 3 through 8 who scored at or above national averages on the math and reading sections of the nationally standardized Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS), according to an analysis by the reform group Designs for Change.

However, with the exception of 3rd grade, Chicago was part of the statewide trend in declining scores on the IGAP reading test.

Designs for Change attributes the increased scores mainly to the work of principals, teachers and parents over the past five or six years. “This is the benefit of the School Reform Act of 1988,” says Executive Director Donald Moore, stressing that scores have increased gradually.

Paul Vallas, the school system’s chief executive officer for the past 17 months, gives significant credit to the work of his administration. “The scores are up because the system is more focused on the essentials—reading, language arts, math, a core curriculum. … We’re part of it. We’re contributing to the improvement in scores.”

Vallas notes in particular the extra help sent to low-scoring schools, the requirement that low-scoring 8th-graders attend summer school and a new, tougher promotion policy.

Moore maintains that the classroom initiatives of the Vallas administration, which were launched in January, came too late to have an impact on the state IGAP tests, which were administered in mid-March. The Iowa tests were given in late April and early May. But Moore says the administration’s focus on achievement “may have contributed some to a rise in the scores.”

In all subjects at all elementary grade levels, Chicago’s averages are below state and national averages, in some cases substantially. And high school scores are still lower than elementary scores. Only 20.6 percent of 9th- and 11th-graders scored at or above average on the reading section of the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency.

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