Chicago’s children, all children, show dramatic gains in test scores, according to a Stanford University study.
Their achievement gain from third to eighth grade was six grade levels compared to five levels nationally. Third graders also had higher scores in recent years. Chicago test scores are still about 1 to 1 1/5 below the national average, and the achievement gaps remain even though Hispanic achievement grew faster than white students.
About 49% (415) of Chicago’s schools remain zoned neighborhood schools, and most of these are elementary schools in affluent areas. Three fourths of high school students do not attend neighborhood schools. There are 265 no zone elementary schools of which 130 are charter schools. A Chicago Tribune article described the impact on neighborhoods. Choice made public schools less bureaucratic but now it is overkill; we are just competing with one another. To improve enrollment, some district schools are becoming community schools like one that includes the IB program. It now stays open on Saturdays and evenings and holds classes of interest to parents.
Some schools develop new STEM or other specialized programs to attract parents, but the effect is that other schools have a high percentage of students who struggle academically and have disabilities. An administrator asks: What is the cost for the neighborhood and for the kids who stay behind? There is a loss of social networks because children in the same area go to so many different schools. The schools they attend may not be much different from the one they left, but parents do not know. They don’t connect with one another. What they do know is that those zoned schools in affluent areas have no room for them.
The expected explanations e.g. declining population and high student retention (14%) do not account for the achievement gains, at least on the surface. Improvement happens in all socio-economic groups. The Stanford researchers call for a deeper dive into the migration of students into and out of the city. The percentage of minority groups remains the same, but are they somehow different? Do the children who struggle the most leave Chicago, thus the children who stay have, on average, higher scores? Do school choice policies have an impact? The study calls for more studies.
A lot is happening in Chicago, but we cannot explain it. Let’s hope that there will be a deeper dive into the schools. Are the children who were pulling down the scores leaving at a higher rate than others? Does leaving behind the students who struggle the most actually improve the school climate? It does not seem like this is the explanation simply because schools in affluent areas have not been impacted by poverty, and their scores are also improving.