CHICAGO — Where have all the juniors gone?
A look at enrollments in the Chicago Public Schools' Southwest Side High School Network shows five schools with what amounts to a dip in junior class size. Curie, Gage Park, Hubbard, Richards and Robeson all have junior classes smaller than their sophomore classes, but also smaller than their senior classes.
The dropout age is 17, so junior classes might well be expected to dwindle from the sophomore year, but why then the increase in the senior class size?
Students accuse CPS of using demotions to work fuzzy math on state test scores.
The students, organized under the title Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, say a third of all juniors at Gage Park High School were demoted to sophomores to prevent them from taking a key test, the Prairie State Achievement Examination, which includes the ACT, typically taken by juniors considering college.
“Our school was under so much pressure to raise the test scores that they planned to demote me and 67 other juniors a month before the PSAE, so that students who don’t do well on tests don’t make the school scores go down,” said Timothy Anderson, a junior at Gage Park High and leader with VOYCE.
“This is what happens when test scores count for so much. This is a direct outcome of Mayor Emanuel’s emphasis on high-stakes tests and his push to close schools,” Anderson said.
But CPS officials said the matter had been clarified weeks ago and that 23 students in their third year had been denied the chance to take the PSAE because they had not reached the 11 credits necessary to take the test. That number was actually down from 55 at the beginning of the year, as 32 students cleared the junior threshold with credits added at midyear from the first semester.
Even so, there were 170 Gage Park juniors, compared with 234 sophomores and 220 seniors. The dip was even more pronounced at the other schools, especially Hubbard and Richards, where juniors made up less than 20 percent of the overall four-year enrollment.
"The junior dip is weird," said Eric Gutstein, professor of math education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "In general, we would expect, all else being equal, class size dropping through the years 9-12."
"Maybe people just had less kids that year," said CPS spokeswoman Molly Poppe, who pointed to how Payton College Prep and Whitney Young Magnet also have fewer juniors than seniors. "We don't see any causality. We just think there were less kids born that year."
In fact, there were fewer children born that year than in years before in Chicago. Yet, it was part of a general downward trend, not a one-year aberration. According to Illinois Department of Public Health figures, Chicago saw 57,324 births in 1994; 54,515 in 1995 and 52,831 in 1996, most of whom are juniors now. Yet in 1997 Chicago births fell again, to 51,117, failing to explain the one-year dip.
Poppe added that senior classes are sometimes padded by "former dropouts" who return to school to complete a degree.
Yet that raises the question that, as Payton and Young are both selective-enrollment high schools, shouldn't they have fairly uniform class sizes — and a less pronounced rate of dropouts and re-enrollment?
Poppe responded that students "transfer in and out of the schools from year to year for whatever reason," and that a selective-enrollment high school "may not be able to recoup the loss of students by pulling more students from the waitlist."
At a protest outside CPS headquarters last month, Gage Park junior Julio Contreras, also a VOYCE member, said the students at his school were demoted to boost the average scores for juniors, adding that test scores are used in a principal's evaluation.
CPS data show that 11.5 percent of students at Gage Park High met or exceeded PSAE standards in 2012, a slight increase from the previous two years, when less than 10 percent of students met or exceeded the standards. The CPS average for meeting or exceeding the standards is 31.5 percent.
Although no high schools are considered for closure in the pending list of schools to be shuttered, the student group insists this is typical of high-stakes testing that influences school closings. CPS shifted to a "utilization" standard in determining which schools to close, but also considered academic performance. CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett has insisted all children moving from closed schools will go to a better school.
"While this phase of closings will only impact elementary schools, the writing is on the wall for high schools that were spared in this round," the student group said in a release. "Additionally, under Mayor Emanuel’s administration, these test scores are now being tied directly to principal and teacher evaluations for the first time in Chicago history."
“Mayor Emanuel’s policies provide huge incentives to demote and push out struggling students, when instead we should be supported,” said VOYCE leader Quabeeny Daniels.
Poppe said there is no additional emphasis placed on the PSAE, but granted that test scores are a part of principal evaluations, as are graduation rates.
Pauline Lipman, a professor of educational policy studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said putting so much emphasis on standardized tests has led to scandals in other districts around the country.
"Nationally there is, of course, cheating of all kinds," said Lipman, a member of Teachers for Social Justice who has joined protests against school closings. "In Texas in the early 2000s a school district with phenomenal pass rates on [a state test] was found to demote students to inflate scores. As teachers and principals are evaluated based on student scores, there will inevitably be such cheating. This is just one reason why value-added measures, etc., are not a productive way to evaluate educators."