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After years of gains, black students in Chicago slide on freshman preparation, college enrollment

After nearly a decade of steady improvements, Chicago’s black students have backslid on a closely watched metric that predicts which ninth-graders are most likely to graduate. 

The slight decline in the “freshmen on-track” metric was one of several worrying data points in a wide-ranging presentation on data from 2018 and 2019 at the city’s Board of Education meeting Wednesday. Some of those data points, such as test scores, had previously been released, but others, including the on-track metric, attendance, and college enrollment, had not.

Black student attainment dropped across several metrics. Declines were slight from the previous year, but, still, the overall picture presented to the school board Wednesday was striking. 

“The gaps are not new, but they are extremely worrisome,” said Luisiana Melendez, a professor at the Erikson Institute, an early childhood center. 

“There’s been significant progress, but so much of the widening opportunity gap has been driven by black students continuing to fall in those measures,” said board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Are there targeted supports specifically for those students?”  

Between black students and the district average, the gap in the freshmen-on-track metric grew by 0.4 percentage points. In college readiness, as measured by scores on the SAT, black students scored 17.2 percentage points below district averages, a slight decline from the previous year. And since 2014, gaps in college enrollment between black students and the rest of the district widened, with the most recent data showing black students 7.1 points below the district rate.

Total attendance dipped half a percentage point. Black student attendance is a percentage point below the district average. (Find the full presentation embedded below.)

Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade reminded the board Wednesday that, on nearly every metric, Chicago has significantly narrowed the gaps between black and Latino students over time. On freshmen-on-track, for example, nearly 90% of students are on track compared with barely half in the late 1990s. Recently both black and Latino students have shown progress, but both declined this year. 

She also spotlighted several record-high achievements, such as all-time high graduation rates, which the district said are buoyed in part by gains from Latino and black boys. 

But she acknowledged the challenges ahead and said district administrators are trying to better understand the root causes of the data and the role that poverty, implicit bias, and childhood trauma might play. 

“We have a lot of work to do — it is not lost on us that there’s a heavy lift around making sure we are ensuring that every student in our district is positioned for success,” McDade said. “We have a very aggressive five-year vision for the long term, and there are long-term strategies.” 

Rather than dwelling on the numbers, administrators focused on plans for improvement, chiefly a three-year, $135 million initiative to build a districtwide curriculum across several subjects. The expense has been justified as a way to provide high-quality, culturally relevant materials to schools across Chicago and to relieve teachers of the burden of having to assemble, and then differentiate, their own classroom plans.  

“This is a long-term project, and Chicago has been the most aggressive in getting this off the ground compared to other districts who have attempted it,” McDade said. “One of the things we are most proud of (in this plan) is that it is culturally responsive. We recognize, and all of the research tells us, that students have to not only see the world around them in the classroom but they have to first see themselves, and their agency, and their identity.” 

McDade and the district’s chief schools officer, Bogdana Chkoumbova, touted other strategies, including expanding preschool and early literacy programs, more attention being paid to the city’s 41 lowest-rating elementary schools and to math instruction overall, and boosting academics at shrinking high schools.

McDade also underscored the district’s efforts to provide more social-and-emotional support for students, including “healing centers” for high school students who’ve experienced trauma.  

Board members asked why some academic measures may grow at the elementary level but flag in high school. Not only does attendance drop, but so do percentages of students meeting benchmarks on tests. For instance, more than half of Chicago’s elementary students meet expectations on a standardized test, while only one in three high school students reach that threshold on the SAT. 

In one exchange, former principal and school board member Amy Rome asked whether a change in the district’s school management structure, to place high schools in separate networks from elementary schools, could be a factor.

“Where is the conversation about articulation between elementary and high schools happening?” she asked.

McDade said high school and elementary school principals are interacting. “We are protecting some opportunities for high school principals to interact with elementary school principals,” she said. “But there are some opportunities for growth there.”

Among the other new data that surfaced Wednesday: 

  • About 35% of last year’s juniors met a college readiness benchmark score of a 1010 on the SAT, a percentage that has not budged despite investments in test preparation, such as Khan Academy.
  • More students in 2018-19 earned college credit than in years past, through Advanced Placement courses, International Baccalaureate programs, and dual-credit programs with Chicago’s City Colleges. 
  • The percentage of Chicago students who enter four-year colleges decreased from 2017 to 2018, while the percentage of students signing up for two-year colleges increased.