Chicago students who transferred to higher-performing public schools under a provision in the No Child Left Behind Act saw much stronger achievement gains overall during the first year in their new schools than the year before, according to recent test-score data.
The findings come as the nation’s third-largest school system announced last month that, once again, far fewer students than the number eligible would get a chance to transfer out of low-performing schools. The district was preparing late last month to send letters to the families of some 175,000 students telling them they were eligible to transfer. But the district has concluded that it has fewer than 500 slots available in 20 schools.
At the same time, the district is winning praise from the U.S. Department of Education for making efforts to provide other educational options for students.
The new analysis, prepared by the Chicago school system at the request of the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper, appears to be the first investigation of how students fared when exercising the school-transfer option under the law. It also examined test scores of students who stayed behind in low-performing schools, and of those already in the schools the transferring students entered, to try to gauge whether the transfers had a negative effect. Neither of those groups saw any declines. In fact, they saw some increased academic growth, though not as much as the transfer students.
“We take this as an early sign that things worked well,” said Daniel T. Bugler, the chief officer for research, evaluation, and accountability in the 434,000-student Chicago system. However, he cautioned, “It’s certainly not definitive.”
‘Quick and Dirty’
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, districts are required to offer students transfers out of public schools identified as not making “adequate yearly progress” for two or more consecutive years.
The Chicago analysis, first reported by the Sun-Times on April 25, used the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills to gauge how much academic improvement some students showed during the 2001-02 school year compared with 2002-03.
It looked at the achievement gains for 290 students who took the transfer option in fall 2002. For several reasons, this figure is only a portion of the more than 1,100 students who originally transferred. Most notably, some of those students did not remain at their new schools and some others did not have all the test data needed for the study.
The transfer students studied made substantially higher gains in both reading and mathematics after arriving at their new schools.
During the school year before transferring, they averaged 24 percent below the expected gain in reading, and 17 percent below the expected gain in math, when compared with the national average on the Iowa tests. But when tested a year later, those students showed gains of 8 percentage points above the national average in both subjects.
“This group of kids who transferred did a lot better in 2003 than 2002,” said Craig T. Jerald, a senior policy analyst at the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. “This study seems to indicate that, at least in this year, for this group of kids in Chicago, the transfers seemed to work … as the framers of the law hoped.”
But John Q. Easton, the executive director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, said there wasn’t enough information to draw any conclusions about the students’ rapid growth.
“I don’t know why it happened,” he said. “You cannot scientifically attribute that to the move, because you’re not controlling the other factors.”
He added, “To argue that the transfer caused the improved gains, you need a group of comparably low-performing kids who stayed behind in the sending school.”
Mr. Bugler from the Chicago system agreed that having a control group would provide a better understanding of the results.
“Really, this was kind of a quick and dirty study,” he said. “This was not a rigorous analysis.” However, he added, “Even when you do a quick and dirty, it’s better to see something positive than something negative.”
Mr. Bugler said the positive effects didn’t apply to all transfer students, with 23 percent showing the same or less growth in 2003.
“This didn’t work for every kid at every school,” he said. “On average, the results are promising, but it’s not a cure- all.”
The study also looked at data for nearly 12,000 students in the “sending” schools, and more than 14,000 in the “receiving” schools.
It found “statistically significant” gains for the sending schools during the 2002-03 school year in both reading and math, though these gains were less than the transfer students showed that year. For the receiving schools, there was a slight improvement, but in math the increase was not deemed statistically significant.
Barbara R. Radner, the director of the Center for Urban Education and Assessment at DePaul University in Chicago, suggested that the change of school for transfer students may well have spurred their overall improvement, but that the effect might not be long lasting.
“Will it sustain itself is the interesting question,” she said. “Is this an effect that will wear off as the kids get used to the new school?”
Meanwhile, a fraction—less than 1 percent—of those Chicago students eligible for transfers next fall will actually get them. The main issues are lack of capacity in the system’s high-performing schools, and some with selective enrollments, district officials say.
The district is quick to note that Chicago already provides a lot of students with school choice through an array of charter schools, magnet schools, and other alternatives that take children out of their neighborhood school.
Beyond that, Xavier E. Botana, the director of No Child Left Behind Act accountability for the Chicago system, emphasized that the district is taking other steps to give families new options.
For example, the district is creating a virtual high school and offering new gifted programs in 12 schools identified as low- performing under the No Child Left Behind law. Also, while the law requires that students have access to a choice of supplemental services if their school does not make adequate progress for three straight years, Mr. Botana said Chicago intends to make that option available a year early.
“What we hope to do is create attractive alternatives for parents at their neighborhood schools, given that there’s not a whole bunch of schools out there with additional capacity,” he said. Indeed, he argued that the federal law imposes its sanctions in the wrong order.
“The law is kind of backwards on this issue,” he said. “We really think we should provide the opportunity for schools to improve by offering better programs and support before you talk about transferring out.”
The district is also notifying parents of students in eligible schools far sooner about their options. Last year, such notices didn’t go out until August. Mr. Botana said that by early this month all parents will have received a notification letter, and will have about a month to decide.
Nina Shokraii Rees, a deputy undersecretary at the federal Education Department, said she’s pleased with what Chicago is doing, especially its actions to offer new choices.
“I think Chicago is putting forth a good-faith effort,” she said. “The road wasn’t a perfect one … but when you compare them to other places, they are trying very hard.”