CPS students posted gains in 8th-grade math, while 4th-grade math scores remained stagnant on the most recent NAEP assessment. Credit: Catalyst 2012 file photo

When Chicago Public Schools released results Wednesday of a national assessment that measures student progress in 4th and 8th grades, officials touted academic growth that “outpaced” the nation and state in both math and reading.

In some senses, that is true. CPS was the only large public school district of the 22 participating in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to make gains in 8th-grade math over the last two years. And CPS was one of only three large districts to see improvement in 4th-grade reading scores.

But the district continues to see stark differences between white students and students of color in both math and reading — with achievement gaps widening more in Chicago than in other large districts over the last 12 years.

And among all students, there were no significant changes since 2013 in 4th-grade math and 8th-grade reading.

An expert quoted in CPS’s news release attributed the gains to improved instruction, new standards and a longer school day.

“This is excellent news and a testimony to the hard work of our students, teachers, principals and parents,” CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said at Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting. “Make no mistakes, our students are making tremendous progress and are making the entire city of Chicago proud.”

At the same time, students across the country, on average, saw significant declines in 4th- and 8th-grade math — for the first time since the test was first administered 25 years ago. There was also a national drop in 8th-grade reading but no significant change in 4th-grade reading. In Illinois as a whole, there was no significant change in either subject at either grade level.

Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees NAEP, cautioned against making too many inferences from the nationwide drop in math, saying it would take several years of similar declines to confirm a true drop in achievement.

“One downturn does not a trend make,” she told reporters on a Tuesday conference call. She added that researchers didn’t have information that would explain whether the math drops were connected to new education policies, such as new learning standards or teacher evaluations procedures.

On all measures, Chicago came close this year to other large districts in the percentage of students who were considered to be proficient in math and reading.

Percentage of students who were considered proficient:

2015 Chicago Large districts Nation
4th-grade math 30% 32% 39%
8th-grade math 25% 26% 32%
4th-grade reading 27% 27% 35%
8th-grade reading 24% 25% 33%

While the percentage of Chicago students deemed proficient in reading and math didn’t change much from 2013, there was one significant increase: 4th-grade reading. Two years ago, 20 percent of Chicago students reached proficiency levels; this year, 27 percent did.

Terry Mazany, chair of NAEP’s governing board and a former interim CPS CEO, pointed to Chicago’s math scores closing in on other large districts — not the case a few years ago — as an example of success.

“This is a reflection of about a decade of concentration on the preparation of teachers and professional development for teachers in mathematics,” he said. “Re-establishing algebra at 8th grade also has been an important contributor to that.”

Achievement gaps persist

In the news release, CPS officials acknowledged that the NAEP “results show that achievement gaps persist for African-American and Hispanic students” but said “both priority groups made important progress in math and reading this year.”

But that wasn’t true in most areas. For black and Latino students, there were no statistically significant gains in 4th- and 8th-grade reading or 4th-grade math. In 8th-grade math, Hispanic students in Chicago saw growth — and scored above the nation’s average — but black students saw no gains.

In 8th-grade math, the subject where CPS outshone all other large districts, there was a significant widening of the performance gap between white and black students and white and Latino students, as white students soared ahead.

The white-black gap increased by 20 points — for a test graded on a scale of 0 to 500 — while the white-Latino gap increased by 18 points. Chicago, along with Atlanta, was the only large district to register a statistically significant widening of the gap between white and black students and the only district to see a widening between white and Latino students.

Mazany cautioned that the major gap-widening for 8th-graders in math was the result of just two years of data and may not constitute a trend. He said further analysis would be necessary to determine why the gap had widened since 2013.

“You can only speculate about the nature of the changes that are going on in Chicago,” he said. “You’ve got the continued exodus of the student population from district schools, you’ve got the traumatic impact of the mass closures that could be having lingering disruptive effects on students.”

For CPS to be trending upward on two of NAEP’s four measures “in the face of widespread downturn” was impressive, he said.

But since 2003, NAEP data show that the district’s performance gaps for black and Latino students have widened more in CPS — in both grades in math and reading — than in any other large district that administers the test.

The NAEP data confirm some of what researchers have seen for years in Chicago.

Back in 2011, a University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research report found that over 20 years in CPS — across three eras of school reform — racial gaps in math and reading had widened, especially between African-Americans and other racial and ethnic groups.

African-American elementary and middle school students have improved at slower rates since the early 1990s, leading them to fall behind their peers, the report found. The increase in the gap between white and black students contrasted with national trends during that same time, when 4th-grade gaps closed substantially, while 8th-grade gaps weren’t consistently up or down.

Elaine Allensworth, who directs the Consortium and co-authored the 2011 report, says she’d like to study why the achievement gap has grown so much for African-American students.

But it’s difficult to do that.

Some CPS policies have been more beneficial for the scores of white and Asian students than for African-American students, she says, adding that with the many changes in the district, “it would take a lot to tease out all the influences and why there has been less of a rise for African-American students.”

Some policies have had contradictory effects, adversely affecting one group while benefiting another. For example, African-American students “bore the brunt of adverse consequences” from the district’s promotion policy, Allensworth said.

NAEP is given nationwide to a representative sample of students every two years. About 14,000 CPS students from 200 schools took the test earlier this year, district officials said.

Kalyn is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at kbelsha@chicagoreporter.com and follow her on Twitter @kalynbelsha.

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