Viewed from just about any angle, the reading test scores posted by DuSable High School last spring put it at the head of the reconstitution class.
Among the city’s seven reconstituted high schools, DuSable registered:
The biggest improvement in the percentage of students scoring at or above national norms in reading, 7.6 percentage points.
The highest percentage of students scoring at or above national norms, 12.5 percent.
The largest drop in the percentage of students scoring in the bottom quarter, or quartile, nationwide, 19 percentage points.
The lowest percentage of students in the bottom quartile, 52 percent.
DuSable’s schoolwide scores got a big boost from its junior class, with the percentage of juniors scoring at or above national norms increasing from 7.4 percent to 16.3 percent. The number of juniors tested increased as well.
Chicago administers the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency to freshmen and juniors. Typically, juniors bring up the combined freshmen-sophomore scores because many weak students have dropped out by junior year. However, at some reconstituted schools, juniors brought them down. Alfred Williams, the board’s reconstitution manager, notes that some schools put most of their energy into freshmen. However, principals also report that a greater percentage of both juniors and freshmen took the tests this year, which tends to depress scores.
Looking only at the freshman class, Orr High School did best. The percentage of freshmen scoring at or above the national norm in reading rose 10.3 percentage points to 13.7; both the increase and the resulting total were the highest among the seven schools. Further, the percentage of freshmen scoring in the bottom quartile dropped 26 percentage points, to 57 percent. However, the number of freshmen who took the test declined by almost a third.
Since 1996, the Reform Board’s promotion policy has sent especially low-scoring 8th-graders back to 8th grade or into special high school transition centers. This helped fuel an across-the-board decrease in the percentage of freshmen scoring in the bottom quartile.
Over all, four of the seven schools increased the percentage of students scoring at or above national norms in reading and math. One school’s reading scores remained unchanged, and two schools lost ground. Math scores improved at five of the seven schools, even though teachers and administrators concentrated on reading. “Reading is critical to math,” Williams says. “I’m thinking that the emphasis in reading helped the students to do better in math, particularly with word problems.”
In fall 1996, schools with less than 15 percent of their students scoring at or above national norms in reading were placed on probation. Last summer, the seven lowest-scoring high schools (DuSable, Englewood, Harper, King, Orr, Phillips and Robeson) were reconstituted. Now, the standard for getting off probation is 20 percent at or above national norms.
Some principals say that while they may be able to bring students up to national norms, they could have a hard time keeping them once they get there. “I get my kids scoring up to the national norms, but the magnet [schools] want them, and of course their parents want the best for them, so we lose them,” says one principal who asked not to be identified. “The magnets keep draining them off. At that rate, how do you ever get to the 20 percent at national norms that will take the school off probation?”
In the spring of 1997, 38 students scoring at national norms had signed up for the freshman class at this principal’s high school. By Sept. 20, all but nine had been recruited by other schools, he says.
“It isn’t the Whitney Youngs or the Kenwood Academies that want our students,” says Robeson Principal James Breashears. “It’s CVS or Lane Tech, trying to fill up their enrollments.”
The Consortium on Chicago School Research has recommended that schools be judged at least in part by the extent to which they improve the scores of the students they get rather than just their students’ absolute scores. This also would take account of school mobility rates, another factor that reconstitution principals say works against them. Mobility rates reflect the number of students who transfer in and out of a school during the school year. Typically, high rates depress scores. Of the seven reconstituted schools, Orr had the lowest rate in 1996-97, 50 percent, and DuSable had the highest, 71 percent.
While high schools are getting higher-scoring freshmen, some school officials and teachers say they’re not as well prepared as their 8th-grade scores suggest. “We saw poor continuity with the Iowa and the TAP,” says Joyce Johnson, principal at Orr. The Iowa Tests of Basic Skills are given in the elementary grades, and the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency are given in high schools. Johnson says that when incoming freshmen were tested, some dropped as many as three grade levels from their 8th-grade scores.
Nathaniel Mason, principal at Harper, speculates that 8th-grade scores may reflect intense preparation for the tests. “In college you might cram for a test and do very well, but if you’re tested on the same material six months later, you might not do so well,” he observes. “It’s a lot like working out, keeping those muscles in shape. What we realize we have to do now is keep our kids’ minds in shape.”