CPS report card shows many schools struggling

A third-grader takes a spelling test in Chicago last year. (José M. Osorio/Tribune)

By Chicago Public Schools' own reckoning, about a quarter of its elementary schools and more than 40 percent of its high schools are failing, according to internal documents obtained by the Tribune.

Each year, district officials score each school based on academic performance. Last year, they assigned grades A through F based on the numeric scores, and schools chief Ron Huberman talked of publicly releasing them so school and community members would know where they stood. But he never did.

An analysis of the grades shows that a disproportionate number of schools scored in the D range or worse, including 48 percent of elementaries and 68 percent of high schools.

Many critics have labeled the district as failing over the years, and individual schools have continuously failed to meet standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. What's novel about this measure is that it offers a glimpse of the district's own view of school quality. It's important, too, because Huberman last year pushed for those scores to be tied to decisions about closings — the highest sanction a school can face.

Huberman said he did not release the grades because they need to be more nuanced. The data does not take individual student growth into account, and school-wide comparisons can be imperfect, he said.

He also wanted a plan in place for schools to improve their grades before publicly releasing them, he said.

Even so, Huberman pushed to use the same scores to justify closing schools.

"It's not that I think it's flawed, but I think it can be better and more nuanced," he said.

The ratings take in a variety of indicators including test scores, dropout rates and attendance. The scores are based on 2008-2009 test results as well as trends over time.

The CPS document obtained by the Tribune was prepared in conjunction with consultants at The Parthenon Group. It shows the grade ranges that corresponded with the numeric scores.

The grades skew toward the lower end of the spectrum. Among elementary schools, 47 of 474 received As, while just 4 of 92 high schools met that mark. Meanwhile, 104 elementary schools and 39 high schools got Fs. Not all schools had sufficient data to be scored.

What the grades mean depends on where you sit.

District officials say they want to give fair warning when schools are at risk of closure.

But a few activists accuse Huberman of using the probation policy to wrestle control from local school councils, since schools on probation for two years can also lose the authority to hire their own principals.

More than 300 schools are on probation this year, the highest number since 1996-1997, according to an analysis conducted by Designs for Change, an education nonprofit.

"Probation has become a back-door method … for recentralizing the school system to strip Local School Councils, principals and teachers of their decision-making opportunities," wrote Valenica Rias-Winstead, an associate at the research group, in a February report.

Others see the grades as sad confirmation that billions of dollars and decades of reform have yielded little more than higher property taxes in the city. The data is from the 14th — and what will likely be the penultimate — year that Mayor Richard M. Daley controls the school system.

Observers caution that a single grade can't assess the complex work of fashioning the school system into a functioning body.

"There has to be some recognition — beyond what letter grades are put on school doors — of just how complicated this work is," said Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute. "Changing the quality of teaching, improving the quality of learning and having extraordinary leaders is at the heart of the answer. And that doesn't happen in one school year."