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Chicago Details College-Readiness Plans

We're learning more about Chicago's work to report an array of college-readiness metrics on its high schools.

A couple of weeks ago, we told you about a Chicago newspaper report that said the district would soon be factoring things like college enrollment rates into decisions about school intervention and closure.

That piqued our interest, especially in light of the big ouches we're hearing as New York City starts basing high schools' ratings in part on college-readiness metrics.

So we gave the Chicago Public Schools a call. Jennifer Cheatham, the district's chief instructional officer, explained that the school report cards are for parent information only; the data in them is not what forms the basis of district judgments about whether schools need intervention, consolidation, or closure. Those decisions are based on the criteria listed in Chicago's "performance policy," Cheatham told me.

Why are we quibbling about this? Because if the district is going to start basing school-closure decisions on stuff like the percentage of students who enroll in college, there could be some serious bumps ahead. So it's worth taking a look at what the district is reporting to parents in the report cards, on the one hand, and the criteria it considers when it evaluates schools, on the other.

The report cards, described in an official statement and in a four-page graphic, cover all grade levels. But since we're talking about college readiness here, let's look at the sorts of things the district is now reporting to parents at the middle school and high school levels.

At the high school level, you can see that the report cards disclose each school's ACT scores (which are required of all juniors as part of the statewide Prairie State Achievement Exam). Also reported are freshmen's and sophomores' scores from the ACT's EXPLORE and PLAN tests, and a school's five-year graduation rate.

Disclosed, as well, are the rates at which high schools' students enroll in two-year and four-year colleges. Additionally, there is a "college eligibility rate" that is derived from combining students' ACT scores and grade-point averages. The bar is set pretty high here: They're aiming for levels that indicate eligibility for "selective or highly selective" colleges. It doesn't take rocket science to project that for schools, this will be a big ouch.

School report cards also include the percentage of students taking Algebra I in 8th grade, and the percentage passing it.

Now let's take a look at the criteria in the performance policy, which is outlined in a PowerPoint presentation on the district's website. You can see that intervention and closure decisions are based on status and growth on state tests, as well as factors such as attendance, and, at the high school level, students' ACT scores, the rate of enrollment in AP classes, and the one-year dropout rate (that's the number of students in a high school who drop out in any given year).

So I asked Cheatham: If the indicators in the report cards are crucial information for parents, to enable them to judge their schools, why didn't the district decide to evaluate schools on those same criteria?

She explained that schools need a "chance to do the work" before being evaluated on it. The report cards offer a chance for "transparency, and a better and clearer indication of whether students are on track" for college and good jobs, she said. As such, they are a "major step in the right direction," Cheatham said.

I asked whether the district will eventually judge schools by those college-readiness metrics. Cheatham said it was too soon to know that, but added that, "over time, it's important to us that report card and the accountability system are aligned. We don't want to be using dramatically different metrics. It creates confusion and a lack of transparency."

Expect the report cards to "morph" as the district gets a better sense of which metrics are the best indicators of college readiness, she said.

The new report cards are coming out at the same time the district makes its case for closer scrutiny of underperforming schools, particularly high schools.

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