Chicago school board approves new school ratings scale despite complaints and confusion

The Chicago Board of Education approved changing its controversial school rating scale Wednesday despite board members’ gripes about the formula and approach for evaluating schools.

District administrators had proposed tweaking Chicago’s school quality rating policy to account for how well elementary schools keep students “on track” and for high schools’ efforts helping students complete post-graduation plans, and to craft rating systems for specialized schools that had lacked them.

At their first meeting since being appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, board members initially looked skeptically at the proposal and questioned the district’s formula and approach to determining school quality, which heavily relies on test scores and attendance.

“This is what you get when you put together a board with expertise,”  board President Miguel del Valle said after rounds of questions and to applause from the audience.

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The plan failed to garner the five votes needed for it to pass when the board finally voted on the proposal, but then a district lawyer warned that rejecting the proposal would leave the district without a reliable framework for evaluating elementary schools. That would set off a scramble to provide principals with another framework with only a couple months before next school year. Board members appeared visibly confused.

Members complained that they hadn’t known about the need to approve a new formula and felt pressed toward a decision. Still, most disregarded their reservations when weighed against the consequences for the district. The board voted 5 to 1 to approve the policy, known as SQRP.

Member Dwayne Truss voted no, he said, because he felt the district hadn’t engaged teachers and families enough before crafting the policy. Board Vice President Sendhil Revuluri, who said the confusion around the vote placed him in “an awkward position” abstained. But Del Valle, Luisiana Meléndez, Amy Rome, Elizabeth Todd-Breland, and Lucino Sotelo voted yes.

“We can’t change the past,” Sotelo said. “The only thing we can do is [provide guidance] to a better path.”

Related: Chicago school board weighs changes to controversial school rating policy 

Schools chief Janice Jackson said it would take at least 18 months to come up with another school rating policy. “We heard loud and clear from the board that there is an interest in investigating and looking at other models,” she said.

Under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the district had been redesigning its school ratings. Before the meeting, Cassie Cresswell of parent group Raise Your Hand protested that the new board would vote so soon on a project built under the previous administration, without broader public input.

“I think it’s kind of shocking that it’s on the agenda,” she said.

Under the Illinois School Code, the CEO at Chicago Public Schools has the power to place schools on probation to address underperformance, and the school board has the authority to decide what guidelines should determine that decision, which is where the ratings come in.

The ratings, which are heavily reliant on test scores, factor strongly into families’ enrollment choices. The district has used them to determine which schools need more support or intervention — like a change of leadership, staff overhaul, closing, or replacement by a school intended to provide students better options.

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Critics, including the Chicago Teachers Union, argue that the ratings correlate more with socioeconomic status and race than they do school quality. Board member Amy Rome asked, “Have you considered alternatives to SQRP that don’t pit schools and communities against one another?” 

Jackson defended the new policy before the vote.

“Despite the perception of some today,” Jackson said, “CPS is a leader when it comes to school quality.” 

She cited districts such as Denver and D.C. that have adopted aspects of Chicago’s approach. But, she said, she was willing to work to update the school rating policy to both be fair and empower school leaders. 

Jeff Broom, who oversees assessment and research for the district, called the ratings “a good, credible starting point.” He touted Chicago’s emphasis on student academic growth rather than just performance as a more equitable approach to rating schools, and said the district was ahead of others with its focus on student outcomes.

Related: Lightfoot vows new Chicago school board will stop making so many decisions behind closed doors

Chicago’s updated rating formula introduces a new metric to elementary school ratings known as “3-8 On-Track” that factors in attendance and grades in core subjects for students in grades 3 through 8. The indicator, meant to assess whether students are “on track” to succeed in high school,  would account for 10% of a school’s rating. The district didn’t provide a breakdown of how the indicator factors in attendance and grades. 

Board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland questioned applying those indicators to young children, and not accounting for  differentiation in grading practices and instruction. She also criticized the district’s reliance on attendance to calculate school ratings, stressing that many factors outside schools’ control can impact whether a student comes to school or is truant. 

The proposed rating formula would also add a new metric to high school ratings — the percent of students who have completed a postsecondary plan.

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The portion of students filling out those plans would account for 2.5% of a school’s rating.

Todd-Breland also questioned whether the district could show its “Learn.Plan.Succeed” post-secondary plans were making enough of an impact to include it in school ratings.

Jackson defended the plans.

“Our philosophical approach here is that every graduate, whether they choose to go to college or a career, that they leave with [a plan] in their back pocket prepared,” she said.

Board member Truss questioned  whether teachers and parents were consulted enough.  Broom cited more than two years of discussions with various groups, although parents weren’t part of that discussion.

Revuluri suggested the district’s rating policy might yield more insights if observations and school visits by district staff were included, and blasted the district’s reliance on the MAP tests from NWEA, a computerized assessment that he said was too quick and broad and nudges teachers to teach to the test.

The Chicago Teachers Union has criticized the district’s rating policy for including test scores and attendance but overlooking factors like class sizes, poverty and housing instability at the district, where highly rated schools tend to be disproportionately concentrated in white and affluent areas. 

At a press conference before the school board meeting, union President Jesse Sharkey urged the board to vote no.

“This is a school rating policy which is discriminatory and racist,” he said. “ You should be getting rid of that SQRP and not passing it.”

The board’s vote marks the second major update to the policy in the six years it’s existed, and marked a long first day on the job for the school board members. Wednesday’s meeting, which spanned about six hours, was a lot different than past meetings. 

Board members took more time to question district officials about agenda items, and voted on them after public comment rather than retreating behind closed doors and then emerging with a vote. Previous boards often announced votes long after most of the audience had left the chambers.