CEO Jean-Claude Brizard spent Friday morning lauding teachers and principals from turnaround schools run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership. The not-for-profit organization, which runs a teacher training academy, posted some of the best elementary school test scores in the district and Brizard said he was there to find out the secret ingredient. 

The group told him the gains were created by a combination of good hires, a lot of professional development and coaching, an emphasis on creating a calm and welcoming school culture and creating a good relationship with the community.  

Brizard seemed impressed. But when he announced the scores in late June he was careful not to be too congratulatory, emphasizing that other indicators show that the city’s schools need work. He pointed to 8th grade and 9th grade scores on the EXPLORE, the precursor to the ACT college-entrance exam.

EXPLORE scores (for 8th graders) only inched up, from 14.1 in 2009-2010 to 14.2 in 2010-2011. A third of the schools that posted double-digit gains in 8th-graders meeting or exceeding standards on the ISAT saw no improvement, or saw scores drop, on the EXPLORE,  according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of school-by-school EXPLORE scores.

The highest score on the EXPLORE is a 25 and some of the city’s selective enrollment elementary school programs have average scores of 20.

But students at the district’s 13 turnaround schools did best, with the biggest gains in both the ISAT and the EXPLORE. Turnaround is a drastic process to improve the city’s worst schools by giving them extra resources and replacing most of their staff. Turnaround schools typically started out with the lowest scores.

However, there was a wider variance in performance on the EXPLORE as compared to the ISAT. Of the eight turnaround schools whose 8th-graders did significantly better on the ISAT (with gains of more than 10 percentage points), just three saw a 1 point or more increase on the EXPLORE and five saw virtually no movement.

AUSL Executive Director Don Feinstein said he understands why Brizard is pushing for the higher standards, but that asking for increases in EXPLORE might be too much too soon.

“We have to walk before we can run,” he said. “We have to meet before we can exceed.” 

Morton School Of Excellence was the only AUSL turnaround in which 8th-graders did significantly better on both the EXPLORE and the ISAT. The EXPLORE tests college-and-career readiness standards, which are nationally-normed and updated regularly. Principal Angel Turner says she made sure that her 8th-grade teachers knew the college-readiness standards and taught to them.

“We push them to do well on the EXPLORE,” she says. “We like to push that rigor.”

Charter schools, selective enrollment and neighborhood schools saw a one percentage point gain in EXPLORE scores.

According to CPS, students should see their scores increase by 1 or 2 points each year, depending on their starting point. A student with a 14 on the EXPLORE who makes expected gains should end up with a 17.5 on the ACT. But a student with a 20 on the EXPLORE should end up with a 24 on the ACT.

The 2010-2011 ACT scores have yet to be released, but in 2009-2010, the average score was only 17.3 out of a possible 36.

A 2008 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that students need to score in the “exceeds” category on the ISAT to have a reasonable chance of getting a 20 on the ACT. A 20 is what is needed to get into a moderately selective college, such as Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.

In the 2010-2011 school year, in 8th grade, only 13.7 percent of students exceeded standards, a 0.4 percentage point increase from the past year.

ISBE Spokesman Matt Vanover says that it is difficult to compare the ISAT with the EXPLORE. The ISAT tests Illinois Learning Standards, which were developed in 1997 with the intention of figuring out what students need to know in elementary schools.

“It is testing different things and has a different scoring system,” Vanover says. “It is like apples and oranges.”

Over the next couple of years, Illinois will be implementing the Common Core Standards, a set of standards that most states have agreed to adopt. Like the ACT and the EXPLORE, the Common Core Standards look at college readiness and will impose that lens to the lower grades.

“For example, 4th grade math is more rigorous and has higher standards,” Vanover says.

8th Grade Scores, ISAT vs EXPLORE


 School Type Change in ISAT Meets /Exceeds   Change in ISAT Exceeds   Change in EXPLORE  
 Charter  2.34  -7.6 .03
 Magnet  2.86  -1.98 -.28
 Neighborhood  3.71  .72 .10
 Selective  1.14  -2.01 .12
 Turnaround  13.37  1.82 .33
OVERALL          3.78  .36 .07



Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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