Exactly 30 years after then-Secretary of Education William J. Bennett labeled Chicago Public Schools the worst in the nation, new research shows that Windy City schools now lead the country in academic growth.
A new study by Stanford University researchers Sean Reardon and Rebecca Hinze-Pifer tracked reading and math test score growth among public school students from 2009 to 2014. Across racial groups, the researchers found that Chicago students learned significantly faster from grades 3 to 8 than did students in nearly all other U.S. districts—gaining about six years’ worth of learning in five years.
Moreover, there was evidence that incoming student cohorts were improving rapidly. At each of grades 3 through 8, Chicago students’ test scores rose two-thirds of a grade level from 2009 to 2014, compared to the average national improvement of one-sixth of a grade level in those grades during that time. Black, Hispanic, and white students all showed that improvement.
Altogether, only 4 percent of districts in the country—and none of the other 100 largest districts— have growth rates that high, Reardon noted. “Chicago is not just an outlier among large districts; it’s an outlier among all 11,000 districts we can measure this for. It’s a striking case,” Reardon said.
Reardon and Hinze-Pifer analyzed Illinois state test scores in reading and math for Chicago and compared them to scores nationwide using a database of nationally comparable, district-level test data. They found Chicago students perform below the national average in reading and math, and white students in the city outperform black and Hispanic students by a full grade level on average. But they also found that the city has narrowed its national academic gap as well as some racial gaps.
In 2008-09, Chicago 3rd graders scored about 1.4 grades below the national average in math and reading. By the time those 3rd graders got to 8th grade, they performed only .4 of a grade level—about half a school year— below the national average. That was 19 percent faster than the average national academic growth during that time. Hispanic students, who made up 45 percent of the school district during that time, grew 1.2 grade levels faster than the national average for all students, helping them close the achievement gap with white students by .4 of a grade level from grade 3 to 8.
Chicago’s Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson said the results mirror the districts’ own analysis over the last five years, and “we’re really excited to see these data reaffirmed on the national level.”
In the last decade, the 370,000-student Chicago district has been roiled by rising poverty, shrinking enrollment, and shifting racial demographics, but the researchers found the growth rate has been too fast for a changing student body to account for the improvement. The district does hold back about 5 percentage points more struggling students in grades 3 to 8 than other districts, but this could account for only about 1/20th of the difference in academic growth, according to the researchers. And while Chicago was under pressure to improve for federal and state accountability purposes, the researchers found that the improvements they noted on state tests mirrored the district’s gains on the Trial Urban District Assessment, part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress that is not used for accountability.
“This is not driven by cheating or teaching to the test or gaming the system in some way,” Reardon said. “I’m persuaded there really are impressive rates of learning in Chicago.”
The researchers suggested the learning gains are likely coming from changes in the preschool and early elementary grades. “But the interesting question is, what is it that is happening in Chicago in the schools, in the city, in kids’ early childhood that is leading to both the rapid growth rate from 3rd to 8th grade and the improvement from one cohort to the next. And what can we learn from that, ... for other school districts?” Reardon said.
CPS’ Jackson suggested that the district’s focus on expanding preschool attendance, improving professional development for elementary school principals, and aligning the district’s curriculum have all played a role in the district’s growth. Yet she also said competition from private and charter schools and clearer accountability standards have also helped boost achievement.
“I believe the level of transparency we have provided around what a quality school is has been transformational in this district,” Jackson said.
Jackson said the district is looking to partner with more researchers interested in digging into district data to identify the cause of elementary and middle-school growth and how it might be replicated in other districts, as well as how academic growth is progressing in high schools, which were not part of the Stanford study.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.