Chicago is about to shift how it measures school quality as ratings go away

A hand is holding a pen in front of a computer screen.
The Chicago school board is slated to vote on a new policy for evaluating school performance this week. (Jamie Kelter Davis for Chalkbeat)

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The Chicago school board Wednesday will consider a new policy formally doing away with a longstanding and controversial system that rated schools on a scale of 1+ to 3. 

The new draft policy for sizing up schools’ performance, in the works since 2019, would expand the metrics used to evaluate campuses — and aims to place greater emphasis on how schools promote students’ social and emotional development. 

It’s a welcome move for critics of the old rating system, who said it overemphasized test scores and stigmatized schools serving students with high needs — even as parents and the public turned to it as a one-stop source of information on everything from attendance to specialized programs campuses offered.

The old system has been on hold since the COVID pandemic derailed district and state testing in the spring of 2020. 

In a separate policy also before the board Wednesday, the district would adopt three labels for schools largely reflecting the state’s designations, as required under state law. But otherwise, the district’s new “Continuous Improvement and Data Transparency” policy says the district would not rank schools by any means. 

Chicago Public Schools would present the plethora of information on schools compiled under the policy on a new public dashboard beginning in the fall of 2024 — one that district officials and advocates say will offer a more holistic picture of campus quality.

But both the district’s teachers union and its principals association are urging the board to delay backing the policy. They argue that it needs to spell out more clearly how school climate and other factors will be measured and how the district will hold itself accountable for ensuring campuses have what they need to improve — a key goal of the new policy. 

“We want to make sure on the front end that we don’t leave too many gray areas,” said Alahrie Aziz-Sims, the principal at Bogan High School on the Southwest Side. “It’s really important to have clarity on where we put our efforts so that teachers and administrators don’t burn out in this recovery period.”

During a recent educational research conference in downtown Chicago, school board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said the new policy offers a solid framework, even as it embraces some ambiguity. She said it focuses on “inputs” — staffing levels, curriculums, and other district investments — as well as student outcomes.

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“There are things we care about that we don’t yet know how to measure, and in the course of this process, we said, ‘That’s OK,’” Todd-Breland said.

School ratings historically seen as punitive

In 2019, the school board newly appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot approved an updated School Quality Rating System, or SQRP, policy. But members said the new version didn’t go far enough in addressing long-standing criticism — and tasked the district with overhauling the system. 

Then, in the spring of 2020, the pandemic shuttered school buildings and led to the cancellation of district and state testing — and the district suspended the ratings, giving all campuses an “inability to rate” label. That has remained the case even as standardized testing resumed statewide with the partial return to in-person learning the following spring.

The district formed an advisory group to tackle the redesign and sought broader input into the effort. All in all, roughly 20,000 people have weighed in on the redesign, according to the advocacy group Kids First Chicago, which led the outreach efforts. That’s more engagement than with any other district initiative in recent memory, says the group. 

Natalie Neris, the chief of community engagement at Kids First and a district parent, said many families and community members strongly opposed the old school rating system, which in part informed unpopular decisions to close 50 schools on the city’s South and West sides in 2013. 

“What we know historically is that accountability was used punitively,” she said. “It was used to disempower schools.” 

Some themes cropped up consistently in the feedback: A new policy should elevate student social and emotional well-being. It should put more of an onus on the school district to provide money, strategies, and other support for its campuses. And it should empower struggling schools to improve rather than punish them, without enough regard for how student poverty and other demographic factors influence student outcomes. 

The policy advisory group set out to reflect these priorities in the new system.

New policy aims for more holistic view of schools

One of the advisory group’s members, parent Vanessa Espinoza subscribed to the priorities based on her family’s experience. When Espinoza picked a school for her children several years ago, she relied heavily on the district’s rating system to find a high-performing school.

“I thought, ‘Oh, it’s a 1+ school. It must be good,’” she recalled. “Then you go to the school, and it’s a different picture.”

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Espinoza chose a magnet elementary at first, but she felt the school did not deliver on parent involvement and on support for students’ social and emotional development. Then other parents recommended Gunsaulus Scholastic Academy on the Southwest Side, another magnet two blocks from Espinoza’s home. It had a lower rating, but proved a better fit for her family. 

“As a parent, I want a holistic system that will provide me with a more complete picture of the school environment,” she said.

Espinoza believes the draft policy delivers that holistic approach. 

The district would still include proficiency and growth on state tests for all students, those with disabilities, and English learners. But the new policy notes that these metrics are tied to student demographics and should not be considered a measure of school quality. The system would continue to compile data on chronic absenteeism, dropouts, graduation rates, college enrollment and persistence, and others. 

It would also share information about after-school programs, partnerships with nonprofits and other community organizations, and quality curriculums, among many other new metrics. It’s not clear exactly how other factors – such as sizing up a school’s “student experience,” “healing centered culture,” and collaborative environment — will be measured or shared. 

The policy suggests for some metrics the district might use surveys, such as the 5 Essentials school climate questionnaire the district has long used for its ratings and the new Cultivate student survey it started administering this year. Both surveys were created by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research.

The earlier version of the policy posted for public comment included the three new labels — In Good Standing, Remediation, and Probation — based on the state’s designations. It said district leaders would have leeway to designate additional schools as on probation — a move the teachers union had flagged as potentially problematic because the criteria for adding schools to the probation list were not clear. 

But a new version of the policy published Monday pulls out these labels into a separate policy. Both proposed policies no longer reference the district having authority to place additional schools on probation.

The new version of the policy also adds a “district accountability” portion to most metrics, explaining how the district will support schools in pursuing better student outcomes.

Bogdana Chkoumbova, the district’s education chief who also spoke at the education research conference earlier this month, said the new policy would help schools and the district as a whole to improve. She said widely divergent outcomes and student experiences across the district are a central challenge. 

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“I saw this accountability redesign as an amazing opportunity for us to achieve districtwide coherence,” she said. She added, “The accountability system will be a key driver in achieving equity.”

The policy’s greater emphasis on the student experience and social-emotional learning is backed by a growing body of research, said Shanette Porter, a senior research associate at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research. Porter was the lead author on a new study that examined test scores, support for social-emotional development, and behaviors in the ninth grade as factors in longer-term student outcomes — the odds of getting arrested, graduating from high school, and going to college. Social-emotional development proved to be the most powerful factor. 

“One of the distinct takeaways from our work is that policies that are over-relying on test score growth are missing so many of the important ways schools are shaping students’ experiences and their trajectories,” Porter said. 

Porter said researchers have gotten better at measuring “softer” school climate and culture factors, such as how schools promote social well-being and a sense of belonging. The surveys that the district will likely continue to use for evaluating schools are a solid tool, and students have proven a reliable source of information on their own school experience, Porter said. But the work to refine these metrics continues.

Principals and teachers say policy needs more specifics

Aziz-Sims, the Bogan principal, and Ryan Bellville, the principal at McAuliffe Elementary on the Northwest Side lead the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association’s work on accountability. Both said there’s much to like about the proposed new policy, including the added focus on school culture and community partnerships.

“I am really excited to have this holistic approach because it recognizes a lot of the work and progress that wasn’t captured by the school quality rating system,” Bellville said.

However, they don’t think the school board should approve the policy until it’s much more fully fleshed out. 

“There are so many missing pieces,” Aziz-Sims said. “It’s often unclear what’s being asked of schools and principals. Some of the labels are confusing even to us as administrators.”

Aziz-Sims said the district must better define metrics around school climate and culture, and even terms such as “chronically absent,” which can confuse many parents. Although she said principals welcome the policy’s nod to the district’s own responsibility in ensuring schools get the resources they need, that part of the policy is vague and short on details. 

At the Chicago Teachers Union, Pavlyn Jankov, a policy researcher, echoed these concerns in response to the earlier policy version. 

Overall, the policy offers a much more balanced, comprehensive look at how schools are doing, he said. But the portion on district accountability seems “really thin,” he said, and other parts of the policy need more specifics. For example, he asked, what does the district consider “a balanced student testing plan,” which is referenced in the policy?

“There are many things we like,” Jankov said. But, he added, “You can’t pass a framework without people having confidence in the details and how they’ll be fleshed out.”

At Kids First, Neris, a former Chicago teacher and principal, agrees more work needs to be done in the coming months, though the fleshing out of the implementation details can happen after its approval. 

She said the district hasn’t quite “cracked the code” on how to best measure a school climate and social emotional learning. And the district must ensure it is presenting the information it would collect under the policy in a way that’s accessible and understandable to parents. 

“The values in this policy feel consistent,” Neris said. “The ‘how’ is where the work still needs to happen.”

Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at mkoumpilova@chalkbeat.org.

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