CHICAGO — Competition to get into middle school at elite Chicago Public Schools programs around the city was more intense than ever this year, as scores hit record highs at some of the programs that guarantee a coveted spot at a selective enrollment high school.
Programs at Whitney Young Magnet High School and Lane Tech College Prep saw composite scores of those accepted increase by 10 to 20 points on 900-point scales.
"The latest increase in Academic Center admissions scores puts admissions requirements for the top two Academic Centers ... at stratospheric levels," said Matthew Greenberg, the co-founder of SelectivePrep, a company that offers test preparation for students.
Listen to DNAinfo Radio News Director Jon Hansen and Senior Editor Dave Newbart talk about the intense competition for spots in CPS Academic Centers:
In addition to Whitney Young and Lane Tech, there are Academic Centers at Kenwood, Harlan, Taft, Morgan Park and Lindblom high schools. Students attend seventh and eighth grades at the Academic Centers, located within the high schools, and then are given automatic admission to high school.
All together, nearly 3,100 sixth-graders took an admission exam this year, and 880 — about 28.4 percent — got an offer to at least one of the seven programs, Chicago Public Schools officials said.
The number of test takers actually dipped slightly from last year, when 3,200 students sat for the exam, and 26.8 percent received an offer.
But the scores that determine admission — which also include results from fifth-grade standardized tests and grades — jumped at every center except Morgan Park.
And the scores for Whitney Young and Lane Tech were higher than ever, said SelectivePrep, which posted an analysis of the scores on its website.
The analysis noted that to get accepted, students needed all A's, standardized tests scores in the top 1 percent nationally in both reading and math, and a score on the entrance exam in the top 1 percent for Young and top 2 percent to 3 percent for Lane Tech.
"I do think it's becoming more competitive at the seventh grade, and as a result, because people are more aware of it, more want to apply," said Whitney Young Assistant Principal Matthew Swanson, who oversees his school's middle school program.
Swanson said an average of 2,660 students who took the test over the past three years sought entry into his school's program. With 120 spots available, that puts the acceptance rate at 4.5 percent.
Even though the programs are not heavily advertised by CPS — students have to qualify to take the test, and information on the programs isn't widely distributed at most schools — competition is increasing because parents realize the programs mean guaranteed high school admission.
"Word of mouth is one of our strongest marketing tools," Swanson said. "Parents talking to parents at their kids' primary schools has been one of the reasons for our continual growth."
Whitney Young Principal Joyce Kenner agreed.
"We have been very successful in what we do, from the extracurricular to academic sides," she said. "To be honest, in the past it has been more of a well-kept secret, and I just think more and more people are becoming aware of that opportunity."
But with more awareness of the program comes more rejections, even for top students. Similar to the admission process for the city's selective-enrollment high schools, about 30 percent of students are admitted solely based on scores. For the remaining spots, an equal number of students who live in each of four socio-economic tiers are accepted, meaning those who live in wealthier areas have to score higher than those that live in lower-income neighborhoods.
Erica Salem, a Lakeview resident, was dismayed when her daughter didn't get accepted to Lane Tech, which started its program in 2011-12.
"How do I explain to my sixth-grade daughter that her straight A's and 98th and 99th testing percentiles aren't enough to get her into an Academic Center? How can a system do this to our children?" Salem wrote in a Facebook discussion about the centers.
Salem said her daughter is being "penalized" for where she lives, because the minimum score that got accepted among the lowest tier economically was 748, but for those in the top tier, the cutoff was 849.
Overall, she is upset with the CPS system that pits students against each other to get into the best schools because many neighborhood schools are not a viable option, particularly for high school, for many families.
"There's a fundamental problem with competition for public education," she said.
Caty Brownstone-Stillwell, of Irving Park, said she and her husband thought her daughter is "so smart, we thought she was a shoo-in," but she wasn't accepted at Lane Tech.
The CPS teacher knew the family would "be set for the next six years" if her daughter had gotten accepted to middle school, since high school admission is also guaranteed.
Part of the problem is the admissions test is completely different than other standardized tests, such as the Illinois Standard Achievement Test or the Northwest Evaluation Association test the kids already take and study for in school, Brownstone-Stillwell said.
"It was nothing like taking the ISAT or NWEA. It was all logic. There was no prep," she said.
She agreed that the stress experienced by younger and younger kids, because of the high-stakes tests, is unbearable.
"It's horrible; they shouldn't have this pressure until they go to college," she said. "It just sucks that every school isn't phenomenal."
Officials at Lane Tech did not respond to requests for comment.