As Phillips High School’s football team recently made its way to the state championship game, media accounts went beyond celebrating the accomplishment in sports: The all-black, all low-income school was lauded for earning the district’s highest academic rating last year.

Today’s long-delayed release of the latest ratings offer a sobering picture: Phillips is the only school to fall from the top rating last year to the bottom this year and is among only 44 schools (7 percent of 670 schools in the district, and including nine charters) to land at the bottom under a new rating system. Last year, nearly 30 percent of schools got the lowest rating.  

What happened?

For one, the district’s new rating system places more emphasis on improvement in test scores rather than the scores alone. As a result, more schools with low test scores, but a decent rate of improvement, moved up in the new five-level rating system. One example is Robeson High in Englewood, which had always landed on the bottom rung in the past but moved up a level this year. Phillips, on the other hand, had poor student growth.

Improving Phillips is more a process than an event, says AUSL spokeswoman Deidre Campbell. Phillips was turned around by AUSL in 2010. “We are expecting good things in the future,” she says, noting that six of AUSL turnarounds were among the two highest ratings.

Another school, Leland Elementary in Austin, would have plummeted from the top to the bottom like Phillips. But CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett used a power, just granted her at the last board meeting, to keep it at Level 1. In all, Byrd-Bennett used her discretion for 12 schools; half of the 12, like Leland, are welcoming schools that took in displaced students from closed schools.

Level 3 schools face consequences including having their principal and local school council removed or becoming a turnaround, in which all staff have to reapply for their jobs. (Because of the district’s stated five-year moratorium, they are not in danger of being closed). The nine charter schools among the 44 will be put on a warning list and will be shut down if they don’t improve, according to district policy.

CPS leaders have touted the new rating system as more comprehensive, pointing out that schools earn points based on overall improvement in test scores as well as improvement that narrows the academic achievement gap among black, Latino and other groups of students.  College enrollment, college persistence beyond freshman year, the percentage of ninth-graders on track to graduate, and dropout rates are also taken into account for high schools.

Byrd-Bennett says she believe the new rating system shows that good schools are spread around all areas of the city. However, one finding did disturb her: Among half of the 132 top-rated elementary schools—those rated Level 1-plus—so few black students were enrolled that no information was provided on their academic growth. 

“It does disturb me for obvious reasons,” she says.

Navigating choice

School ratings are supposed to help parents navigate the system and choose the best school for their child, providing information on options from charters to magnets to selective enrollment schools. But the information comes at the last minute, since the deadline for the application to selective enrollment and magnet schools, as well as other traditional district-run schools, is just a week and a half away. Charter schools have individual application deadlines that are usually later in the winter, in January or February.

The ratings also help district officials make decisions about which schools need intensive supports.

In previous years, the ratings were released in late September and given to parents in the form of a school report card during the November report card pick-up day. Byrd-Bennett says that did not happen this year because, as the district moved to the new system, she wanted to make sure that the information was correct. “There was a lot of double-checking,” she says.

In addition, the rating system was revised twice after its initial approval in August of 2013. One of the revisions was semantic. Schools now are rated 1-plus, 1, 2-plus, 2 or 3, rather than 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 as they were initially going to be.

The other two revisions were more substantive, giving Byrd-Bennett discretion to pick a school’s rating and letting some schools have their rating based solely on test scores instead of improvement in scores; officials say these revisions resulted in a change in rating for only 14 schools. Two schools—Grissom in Hegewisch and Prussing in Portage Park—benefited from being judged solely on scores rather than growth.

Byrd-Bennett gave a boost to one high school, Senn in Edgewater on the North Side. Rebecca Labowitz, who writes the blog, says that Senn is one of the neighborhood high schools that parents are starting to see as a viable option. For schools like Senn, and also Amundsen and Lake View, a better rating may mean that they are able to attract more students, she says.

Welcoming schools benefit

Some welcoming schools that would have seen their rating drop significantly benefitted by having Byrd-Bennett step in and allow them to remain at Level 1.

Before the school closings, Leland School in Austin was a top-rated, small kindergarten-through-third-grade school. Its teachers and students moved into what was once May Elementary. May then became Leland, a move the district made in order to fulfill a promise that students from closed schools would only be moved to better schools.

But Austin community activists and parents thought the plan was crazy, given that the principal and staff of Leland had only been successful with little children in a small school. “They did not know how to talk to middle-school children,” says activist Dwayne Truss. “They did not have control of the school. Sources inside the school district tell me that it was a mess, that it was chaos.”

Truss says that people in the community know that the school has had problems and are more likely to take that into account than a rating.

Labowitz, whose blog caters to parents looking for advice on how to get into the city’s best schools, says that parents new to Chicago Public Schools might be influenced by a school’s rating. “A parent of an incoming kindergartener might see that their neighborhood school is a Level 3 and look for options based on that,” she says. “But once parents get more used to the system they realize that schools are much more than one number.”

Word of mouth often plays a bigger role than the ratings, she says.

Individual school reports are on school profile pages at and here is an Excel file:

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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