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Increase in Test Scores Leaves Chicago Officials Jubilant

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Test scores are up in Chicago, and Principal John P. Gelsomino of Thomas Kelly High School thinks he knows why.

As the head of one of 109 schools put on probation by district leaders last fall, Mr. Gelsomino and his staff had a strong incentive to launch an all-out offensive against the school's dismal scores. So they attacked the problem head-on: scrutinizing prior scores, crafting tutoring programs for individual students, and creating tangible incentives to induce students to take the tests seriously.

The results are in, and educators at Kelly High are smiling. In math, the combined proportion of 9th and 11th graders who scored at or above national norms on the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency climbed from 15.3 percent in 1996 to 28.3 percent this year. Improvement in English was less dramatic, but 17.3 percent--compared with 13.1 percent last year--met or exceeded the national norms.

"I was elated," Mr. Gelsomino said last week. "The kids now know that all of the tests are linked and they're all important for their future."

In many school districts, scores like those would scarcely warrant celebration. But in Chicago, they are being trumpeted by officials from Mayor Richard M. Daley on down as evidence that the nation's third-largest school system is finally turning the corner.

In the past month, officials have released preliminary results showing that this year's average scores are up throughout the district. The gains came both on the TAP, administered in the 9th and 11th grades, and the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, taken by Chicago youngsters in grades 3 through 8.

Officials Take Credit

The emergency management team Mr. Daley appointed in 1995 attributed the gains to a range of initiatives: mandatory summer school for low-scoring students, new curriculum standards, the elimination of social promotion, the creation of 9th grade orientation academies, and the probationary process for poorly performing schools.

Probation carries the threat of staff firings but it also provides schools extra help, including outside training and guidance.

"We've become serious about educating our students," said Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the 424,000-student system.

Critics, meanwhile, say the increases stem from school-based efforts that have been under way since the passage of a decentralization law in 1988. And some suggest that the administration's emphasis on scores is misplaced.

"There's nothing wrong with test scores going up; it's good," said Sheila R. Castillo, the director of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils, the governance boards set up under the decentralization law. "But it's a snapshot, and it doesn't say that kids are getting better educated."

At the elementary level, the district's combined reading scores for grades 3 through 8 inched upward to 30.1 percent at or above national norms, compared with 29.1 percent last year and 23.5 percent in 1990.

In math, the average rose to 35.6 percent, up from 31 percent in 1996 and 27.1 percent at the start of the decade.

In the high schools, composite 9th and 11th grade reading scores increased to 24.6 percent at or above national norms, rebounding from their historically poor showing of 20.5 percent in 1996. But it was still below the 30.6 percent posted seven years ago.

Students fared better in math, with 30.4 percent at or above the norm, up sharply from 21.7 percent last year. The results are considered preliminary because they do not include several thousand makeup tests.

Schools on Probation Gain

Administration officials saw the scores as validation of their decision to place a fifth of the system's 557 schools on probation this fall. ("109 Chicago Schools Put on Academic Probation ," Oct. 9, 1996.) District leaders will use the scores to help select schools to be the first targets for the next stage of intervention, the whole-school shake-up known as reconstitution.

Mr. Vallas said last week that he plans to identify an estimated half-dozen schools this month for reconstitution, a process yet to be used in Chicago that involves replacing all or nearly all of a school's staff. He said he also expects to free an undetermined number of schools from probation.

Of the 71 elementary schools on probation, all but two improved in math, and 54 boosted their reading scores. Among high schools, 37 of the 38 on probation improved their math scores, while 30 posted higher reading scores.

At the pre-K-6 Samuel F.B. Morse School, officials credited the support available because of probation with helping raise reading and math scores substantially. Sylvester A. Martin, an assistant principal, said tutoring classes before and after school were crucial factors in improving the scores.

At another school on probation, John Farren Elementary, Principal William V. Auksi said multiple factors held down this year's gains to less than 1 percentage point in both reading and math. Just 7.9 percent of students were at or above national norms in reading, and only 14 percent in math. The school draws students exclusively from the troubled Robert Taylor public-housing complex.

But Mr. Auksi said parents and students as well as staff members have begun attaching greater importance to standardized tests, largely because of the district's new policy of refusing to promote students who score poorly.

"For the first time in my career here, and I have 33 years in the system, they're really pushing student achievement," he said.

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