The word “valedictorian” conjures an image of a top high school student heading for success at a top college. But being at the top of the class may be less relevant than which class you’re at the top of, according to a survey of Chicago Public Schools valedictorians.

Among survey respondents, valedictorians from schools with more students performing well on standardized tests tended to do better in college than their counterparts in other schools. For example, valedictorians from the Class of 2000 who graduated from high schools where more than 30 percent of students scored at or above national norms in reading tended to go to more selective colleges, such as the University of Illinois at Urbana, and to do better once there, earning an average GPA of 3.37. Valedictorians from poorer-performing high schools went to less selective four-year colleges and junior colleges. Their average GPA was 2.98.

Access to challenging course work appears to be a factor in this disparity. Valedictorians who attended better-performing schools reported taking an average of four AP courses, while those at poorer-performing schools took an average of only two. Seven valedictorians didn’t take any.

The survey was conducted as part of a joint project of CATALYST, The Chicago Reporter and WBEZ Chicago’s public radio station 91.5 FM, with technical assistance from the Public Policy Practicum at the University of Chicago. The media partners tracked down names and contact information for 200 valedictorians from the classes of 1990, 1995 and 2000. The Practicum helped the partners develop the questionnaire and administered it by telephone. The survey generated 61 respondents; 31 were from the Class of 2000.

The survey also shows that some CPS valedictorians are overcoming social barriers to pursue higher education—all respondents had enrolled in post-secondary education. Findings include:

Two-thirds said at least one of their parents had no more than a high school diploma, if that.

72 percent said they qualified for free lunch while in high school, a common benchmark for low-income status.

But inequities persist. Of last year’s valedictorians who attended high schools where at least 30 percent of students scored at or above national norms in reading, 60 percent were white or Asian. In schools where less than 30 percent of students had such scores, only 12 percent were Asian, and none was white.

Maureen Kelleher contributed to this report.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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