Graduation Rates Rise, but Chicago Public Schools Students Lag in College

Published December 4, 2017

The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (CSR) estimates only 18 percent of 2016’s ninth-graders in Chicago Public Schools will earn a bachelor’s degree by 2026, seven years after their anticipated high school graduation in 2019.

This is expected despite a significant increase in the number of high school graduates in the Chicago system, from 57 percent in 2006 to 74 percent in both 2015 and 2016, according to the CSR study The Educational Attainment of College Public Schools Students: 2016, released in October 2017. More CPS students are entering college—44 percent of graduating seniors entered a four-year college in 2015, compared to 33 percent in 2006, and 19 percent entered two-year colleges in 2015, compared to 16 percent in 2006.

These students, however, aren’t graduating from college in large numbers. Once they get into a four-year college, about 48 percent of CPS high school graduates obtain a degree in six years, compared to approximately 60 percent nationally, the report states. An estimated 82 percent of ninth-graders never make it to the finish line.

Behind on ACT, Too

CSR was founded in 1990 after a state law decentralized the management of Chicago’s government schools. Although that decentralization didn’t last long—the schools have gone through two major reorganizations since then—the consortium continues to provide research on progress, or lack of it, in the system.

CSR’s agenda is guided by a variety of politically active organizations, from Chicago’s teachers union to the state board of education, though it has a “neutrality” statement indicating it concentrates on data and does not promote specific policies.

The consortium offers a great deal of data. It endorses as one measure of college readiness getting a composite score of 21 on the ACT test eleventh graders take in Chicago and around the country. In the past, ACT described this score as giving a student a 50 percent chance of getting a B in “entry-level college courses,” although more recently it has backed off from characterizing the composite score so concretely.

In 2015, only 33 percent of all Chicago eleventh graders taking the ACT received a composite score of 21 or higher. Nationally, about half of all ACT test-takers reached that level.

Questioning the Stats

Neal P. McCluskey, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, says the improvement in some of Chicago’s government secondary school statistics is “impressive,” though he warns people should be wary of the source.

“It is appropriate to be skeptical that new programs are causing the improvement,” McCluskey said.

McCluskey says the slight reduction in the percentage of CPS students who are low-income (82 percent to 80 percent) may be a factor in the rise of high school graduation rates. Overall, he is unconvinced the schools are improving their students’ achievement.

“We may just be seeing marginal improvements that get more people to graduate high school, but not many more really ready for college,” McCluskey said.

‘Great Cause for Skepticism’

Jay Schalin, director of policy analysis for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, says the statistics are dubious.

“There is great cause for skepticism when a district’s graduation rates improve dramatically without equivalent increases in independent measures, such as college completion rates or standardized test scores,” Schalin said. “The improvement may very well be the result of lowering the standards needed to pass courses and meet graduation requirements rather than a rising through better performance. That appears to be what is happening in Chicago.”

Jane S. Shaw ([email protected]) is School Reform News’ higher education editor.