Education Policy Briefing by the Lexington Institute and the Illinois Policy Institute
In recent weeks, accolades for the performance of Illinois (and Chicago) students on the state standardized tests have been hard to miss. The day preliminary data for the Illinois Standards Achievement Test were released, a press release from the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) proclaimed, “A record number of Chicago public elementary students are meeting or exceeding Illinois reading or math standards, setting a new all-time district high.”
A “true apples-to-apples comparison” – without English Language Learners included – would show a 3.7 percent increase to 67.8 percent meeting or exceeding state standards, according to district officials. “It all points to the fact that our core strategies are working,” noted CPS CEO Arne Duncan.
So what is the significance of these trends, and how does Chicago compare to what is going on around the rest of the country? For this, education researchers often look to the test known as the Nation’s Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Last year, a federal Department of Education study known as the Trial Urban NAEP examined 10 of the nation’s largest urban school districts, plus the District of Columbia. In the fourth grade reading test, Chicago finished 8th, ahead of Cleveland, Washington, DC and Los Angeles. Breaking the scores down by race, Chicago’s African Americans fared slightly worse, compared with other cities, slipping to 9th behind Los Angeles. Chicago’s Latinos, however, did comparatively better, finishing 6th in fourth grade reading scores.
This all sounds like extraordinarily good news. To gain some insight into what it means, let’s delve into the numbers a little bit deeper. Over time, NAEP reading scores at both the fourth and eighth grade level in 2007 were higher than in 2002, but not statistically different from 2003 or 2005. This was the trend for overall scores, as well as for all racial, ethnic and income groups.
A closer look at how Latino students here are performing academically points to some serious issues, and to the questions that brought us here today. Statewide, Illinois Latinos ranked tied for 31st in the country on the 2007 reading test for fourth graders on NAEP, ahead of Latinos in California, Colorado and Arizona. But Illinois’ English Language Learners (ELLs) performed far worse – in fact, ELL students in only seven states had lower average scale scores than Illinois, and of those, only Arizona has a comparably large ELL population.
By eighth grade, Chicago students did substantially better. Chicago’s eighth grade Latinos actually scored first among the 11 cities examined in reading, well ahead of the national public school average. Overall eighth grade reading scores ranked 5th, with African American scores slightly lower at 6th.
Meanwhile, high school graduation rates for Latinos in Chicago are stark. A study by the group Designs for Change showed that 35 percent of Latinos age 16-24 in the Chicago metropolitan area are high school dropouts. That alarming number is twice as high as the rate for African Americans and seven times that of white students.
The University of Chicago’s Chicago School Research Consortium found that Latino CPS graduates are far less likely to enroll in college – two-year or four-year – than African American, Asian or White graduates. In seven of the lowest-performing high schools, fewer than 35 percent of graduates attend any college at all. Of these seven, four are predominantly Latino and three are predominantly African American.
How do English Language Learners figure into these challenges? One statistic that I find particularly concerning is that in 2006, 71 percent of Chicago students who had been transitioned out of programs designed to improve English proficiency failed to meet reading standards two years later. That statistic was 53 percent for the rest of the state.
These trends are sure to have a major impact on the economic future of the region, across all ethnic and demographic lines. And the effects will not be spread evenly.
As the Chicago metropolitan area has shifted demographics in recent decades, the changes have varied sharply. In 1999, the state of Illinois was 62 percent white, 21 percent African American, and 14 percent Latino. In 2008, it is 54 percent white, 20 percent African American, and 20 percent Latino. Some Chicago communities have seen their Latino populations increase by between 300-600 percent over that time.
So what are the most promising strategies for improving academic performance for this crucial school population? We will hear this morning from a number of accomplished school and policy leaders who have demonstrated the remarkable ability to make a difference.
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