Not only are Chicago students dropping out at a higher rate than previously thought, their academic scores are lower and the achievement gap between races is widening, reveals new, federally required standards implemented in fall 2011.
Approximately 75 percent of Illinois high schools showed lower graduation rates in the 2011 school year compared to 2010 on the annually released state School Report Card, after the federal government mandated a new formula to more accurately track the progress of ninth graders over four years.
“Across the state you’ve seen graduation rates fall, dropout rates climb, and ACT scores fall,” said Collin Hitt, senior director of government affairs at the Illinois Policy Institute. “In Illinois no one is being visibly held accountable for that.”
Chicago graduation rates dropped about 20 percent based on data collected with the new method. Fully half of African Americans in Chicago do not graduate high school.
Some schools dropped more drastically than others, such as North Chicago Community High School, which reported a 40 percent decrease in graduates from 2010 to 2011. More than half of the city’s schools also saw significant drops in Prairie State Achievement Exam scores, the standardized test taken in the junior year. The achievement gap in Chicago’s elementary schools also widened.
More Accurate Labels
The new method more clearly defines the terms transfer, truant, and dropout. Schools may no longer “lose track” of a student who becomes chronically truant or drops out over the summer.
“You were seeing a combination of data tampering and data mismanagement,” Hitt said. “You could more or less fail to mark a student who’s chronically truant as a dropout—even though that student is not coming to school, you could keep him on the books.” In addition, “School districts can no longer label dropouts as transfer-outs, and that’s what is forcing the change in the data right now,” he said.
Districts must now account for any student who does not re-register at the start of the school year. Any student that has not enrolled at another school must be marked a dropout.
Illinois only tests eleventh graders to determine a high school’s achievement, Hitt said, and increasing numbers of school districts were reducing the number of students offered that test. This inflated the districts’ reported scores.
Some districts reduced credit requirements in favor of lower-achieving students, Hitt said, changing a 60-credit requirement for juniors to 70, while dropping senior requirements from 90 to 80. This meant students held back in their sophomore year might never take the eleventh-grade test while gaining enough credits to become a senior.
“The low performers were being shot under the radar into the twelfth grade,” Hitt said.
New 2010 requirements obligated all seniors who had not taken the PSAE to sit for it. PSAE scores have steadily dropped to a 50 percent meet-or-exceeds rate, from 55 percent in 2006.
The most dramatic dip in student scores occurred at Joliet Central High School, where the percent meeting PSAE standards dropped from 42.6 percent to 31.2 percent. The new calculation is based 2011 numbers of students graduating in four years versus the number graduating in five in 2010, noted Joliet Principal John Randich.
“The percent of students not meeting or exceeding state scores includes junior and seniors rather than just juniors,” Randich said. “These two changes negatively affected our data.”
Improvements Still Needed
Chicago charter schools have continued to achieve steady test score improvement in spite of the new accountability measures, Hitt noted. The more accurate measure is one step of many necessary to improve Illinois education, he said.
“There are still problems with the method,” Hitt said. “[Chicago Public Schools] is finding a way to report a graduation rate in the 70s despite the fact that everybody knows that their graduation rate is in the 50s. Chicago, using its own 5-year graduation methodology, for internal purposes reports a 58.3 percent rate.”
Meanwhile, Randich noted, repeated formula changes create a shifting target for schools and can obscure measurements across time.
“It is difficult, if not impossible, to compare one group with another because the rules change every year,” he said.
Image by John Steven Fernandez.