Chicago Public Schools put its school ratings on hold. But will the coronavirus disruption propel a push to overhaul them?

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision last week to extend Chicago’s school closures put on hold the high-stakes process of rating Chicago Public Schools’ campuses: Faced with a month of lost instruction on the heels of disruption from last fall’s teachers strike, the district said it would table the annual exercise of evaluating schools within minutes of the mayor’s announcement.

Now some educators and parents wonder whether this unprecedented uncertainty might lend momentum to a push to overhaul the controversial ratings process. 

Critics have charged that test scores and attendance weigh too heavily in sizing up schools, penalizing those that serve students with high needs. The district says the rating system is a key tool to ensure accountability and help families make informed choices. 

With the Trump administration announcing Friday it will give schools a pass on administering standardized tests this spring, Chicago won’t be the only district scaling back school evaluations this spring. But in an era when assessments and accountability loom large, could the immediate fixes inform longer-term changes? 

In recent weeks, the Chicago’s teachers union has taken aim at attendance as a factor in the ratings: The outbreak’s upheaval underscores how tough-to-control factors can undermine schools’ efforts to boost attendance, leaders have argued. 

“Attendance is absolutely something we want to be strong,” said Jennifer Johnson, the teachers union’s chief of staff. “But the policy puts this wrongheaded pressure on being there even when it’s not best for students to be there.”

In any case, the debate about evaluating schools fairly and meaningfully will continue.

“There is never going to be a perfect metric for how schools are doing,” said Elaine Allensworth, director of the Consortium of Chicago School Research. “It’s a matter of striking a balance.” 

Chicago rolled out its current five-tier ratings system, in which the highest-ranked schools receive a grade of 1-plus, in 2004. The system takes into account performance and growth on standardized tests, efforts to close gaps in test outcomes for students of color and other students, attendance, graduation rates and other measures. The district has said the ratings are needed to keep parents in the loop and to focus on best practices and on schools that require intervention. 

The district earlier this year committed to revisiting its ratings system, known as School Quality Rating Policy, or SQRP. The first public conversation on the topic, held in the cafeteria of STEM Englewood High School in January, drew 60 principals, parents and community leaders. Some principals argued it’s unfair their schools are held to the same standard as schools with lower-needs populations, who have higher daily attendance. 

School ratings are required by both the state and the federal government though districts have considerable leeway in designing them. New York City under Mayor Bill de Blasio, for instance, did away with a letter-grade rating process that leaned heavily on test scores and attendance in favor of a system that looks at a variety of indicators under headings such as “supportive environment” and “strong family-community ties.”

Last summer, the Chicago district’s governing board adopted some changes to its ratings policy, including reducing the weight of attendance from 20% to 10% of the overall rating. More recently, the district, which is conducting a survey on the topic, has suggested it’s willing to listen and consider further tweaks. 

The district’s teachers union has been a blistering critic, arguing that the ratings should be scrapped altogether. Leaders say the overall ratings policy does not fully capture school climate and the heavy lifting that goes into meeting the needs of the district’s most vulnerable students. It distills a school’s efforts into a single number with major consequences for its ability to draw families and thus additional per-pupil dollars.

“This policy creates a false narrative about which schools are great and which are not,” Johnson said. 

On Thursday, leaders announced they would appeal to the state to let the district use last year’s ratings for a second year and scrap high-stakes tests. 

When the outbreak is contained and students return to school, be it this spring or later in the year, some in the district hope the coronavirus crisis will refuel the ongoing conversation about how the district sizes up its schools’ performance and relays the results to the public. Luke Shepard, a member of the parent group Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, said Chicago should further limit the role of attendance by reducing its percentage of the overall score or focusing more narrowly on chronic absenteeism as Illinois does — or eliminate it altogether. 

“I think this crisis really showcases the underlying problems that we have with attendance that have always been present,” said Shepard, who along with other parents had organized a now postponed forum on the policy this spring. 

He said it troubles him that in a bid to boost attendance, his child’s elementary school penalizes truant students by denying them field trips and assemblies — though students don’t have control over family and medical issues that can keep them away from school. 

Allensworth said giving schools a pass on high-stakes ratings this year makes perfect sense.

“Any information about this school year would be tough to interpret,” she said. 

Longer term, she said attendance remains a crucial element in tracking school performance and holding them accountable. She noted research has shown a strong connection between attendance and students’ economic background. Schools serving low-income students deserve credit for the harder work that goes into ensuring high attendance — work that can be invisible to better-off families looking at ratings to choose a school.   

At the same time, research has shown schools can do a lot to powerfully influence attendance, she said, from stationing adults in front of buildings before and after school to nurturing ties with parents to alerting families promptly about absences and troubleshooting issues that might hinder attendance.  

“Teachers and administrators will sometimes say we have no control over attendance,” said Phyllis Jordan of the Center for Children and Families at Georgetown University. “That’s just not true.”