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Selective-Enrollment High Schools Don't Boost Academic Achievement: Study

By Sam Cholke | November 15, 2016 3:12pm
 University of Chicago researchers found the real benefit of Chicago's selective-enrollment high schools is in their racial and economic diversity and they have little effect on the academic performance of their students.
University of Chicago researchers found the real benefit of Chicago's selective-enrollment high schools is in their racial and economic diversity and they have little effect on the academic performance of their students.
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HYDE PARK — Chicago Public Schools' selective-enrollment high schools may be doing almost nothing to boost students’ academic performance, according to a new report out of the University of Chicago on Tuesday.

The research by the university's Consortium on School Research found there are reasons for parents to go through the stress of trying to get into one of the 11 selective-enrollment schools, but they should not expect the hyper-competitive schools to improve a student’s grades, test scores or chances of getting into a selective college.

Listen to Sam discuss the challenges selective enrollment school kids face.

The study compares students who got into a selective-enrollment high school with those who just missed the cutoff to be accepted and instead attended a non-competitive school.

Researchers found that the selective-enrollment schools did nothing to improve students' test scores and lowered the grade point averages for students at all income levels.

At the competitive schools, students from Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods on average saw their GPA in 11th grade — they year the apply to college — drop to 2.5 on a 4-point scale.

“If that is the case, these students may not be admitted to selective colleges or they may become ineligible for merit-based scholarships, which are likely especially important for these students,” the study’s authors write.

Middle-class students, however, improve their odds of getting into top colleges, the study found.

The study warns parents that after the grueling fight to get into a selective-enrollment school like Whitney Young Magnet High School on the Near West Side or Walter Payton College Prep on the Near North Side, they shouldn’t be surprised to see their child’s grades drop. Parents can expect their child to fall in the class rankings because they are now surrounded with more competent classmates. Test scores, which colleges care increasingly less about, hold steady, however.

“Simply put, on average, these students would have performed well on tests with or without selective schools,” the study says.

So why go to the trouble, particularly when some students need a near-perfect score on their application to land a spot at one of the city’s top four selective-enrollment high schools?

“One could conclude from these results that CPS should do away with [selective-enrollment high schools] because they have no impacts on student achievement outcomes and yet they increase uncertainty and stress for parents and children and require the district to administer entrance exams and an admissions system,” the study’s authors write.

The benefits may not be academic at all, the study finds.

Students who attend these schools reported that they have better relationships with their teachers and other students in the racially and economically diverse setting of selective schools than their peers at non-competitive schools, which continue to be segregated along racial and economic lines across much of the city.

“Students in [selective-enrollment high schools] also report a greater sense of safety — they are less likely to worry about crime, violence and bullying at the school,” the authors write. “Perhaps it is factors like these that make [selective-enrollment high schools] highly desirable to students and families — more so than the potential to improve test scores and college outcomes.”

The study also points out that competitive schools have benefits for CPS beyond academics by offering attractive options for families that would otherwise leave the district for private schools or the suburbs, ultimately shoring up the tax base that keeps CPS funded.

CPS officials pointed out the many positives about selective-enrollment schools in the study, including improved attendance and decrease in suspensions.

"CPS is a district of choice, and we are committed to providing families with a variety of high quality options so that each student can learn and grow in a school that meets their unique needs," said Michael Passman, a spokesman for CPS. "We appreciate the Consortium's careful analysis, and we will take their findings into consideration as we seek opportunities to build on the academic growth our students have made throughout the city."

Research in October by the same group looking at the city’s high schools more broadly found that the city’s best-performing open-enrollment high schools also report more positive feelings about school but also show improvement on test scores and do better in college.

“This evidence suggests that the schools may be considered high achieving because their students show higher gains than typical, not just because they enroll students who already have high test scores prior to high school. In other words, some of these schools likely have strong reputations because they do add value to their students’ learning, beyond what is achieved at other schools,” according the earlier study.

The full report released Tuesday is available online on the consortium's website.

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