When Districts Create Selective High Schools, Students Segregate by Ability. Duh?

The Hechinger Report and WBEZ Chicago just published a welcome expose by reporter Linda Lutton that confirms the obvious.  When you have school choice and when some high schools are competitive based on standardized test scores, you’ll end up with a system that sorts students by their ability as measured by test scores.

Paul Hill, founder of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington—and the father of the school-choice-driven theory of Portfolio School Reform—is quoted in Lutton’s new report as being shocked.  He says segregation by ability is an unintended consequence of his theory: “It certainly wasn’t a goal.”

And Barbara Byrd-Bennet, Chicago’s school superintendent who leads the school district whose top students are actively sorting into elite high schools, says she doesn’t believe in sorting by ability: “There’s no research to support sorting.”  Lutton explains that Byrd-Bennett, “says she, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the school board  ‘come from a very different belief system,’ one that opposes sorting students by achievement level.  ‘What we believe is that you’ve got to elevate, raise the level and the quality of instruction at all of our schools, including our neighborhood schools,’ said Byrd-Bennett.”  But at Marshall Metropolitan High School, whose attendance zone includes much of Chicago’s West Side, 86 percent of the students score below the district average.

According to Lutton’s report, 104 students had perfect scores on the district’s standardized EXPLORE exam, and 96 percent of these students attend Northside, Whitney Young, Payton, Lane, Lincoln Park and Jones high schools—all competitive-entry schools that accept students based on their academic records.  “Among the city’s top 2 percent of test takers (those scoring a 23, 24, or 25 on their exam) 87 percent are at those same six schools.”  By contrast, “Fifteen percent of the city’s high schools are populated with vastly disproportionate numbers of low-performing students.  More than 80 percent of incoming students at these schools score below the district average.”

There are, of course, racial implications: “Black students are most likely to be affected by sorting… African American students are doubly segregated, first by race, then by achievement… Chicago has black high schools for low achievers, black high schools for average kids, black test-in high schools for high achievers.”

Lutton describes research showing that New Orleans and New York City—both school districts that have become “portfolio”-choice school districts in the past decade—have also become increasingly segregated by students’ academic ability as measured by test scores.  She concludes: “Researchers say ‘achievement’ may be an indication of the resources students have at home.  Higher performing students’ families are better at getting information about school quality, navigating the system, and securing things like transportation to school or test prep for entrance exams.”

While Paul Hill and Barbara Byrd-Bennett may profess shock and dismay about this “unintended” sorting by academic prowess, school staff and students are not nearly so gullible.  A counselor at an elementary school, “said her elementary school sends ‘average’ students to a nearby high school that’s seen as safe, that admits no low performers, and scores at about the district average.  But she said she would not recommend the school for her top students….”   And a high school freshman tells Lutton:  “If you get straight As and you do really good on testing, the school you’ll probably get accepted into is Northside, Walter Payton, Whitney Young.”

Lutton describes one Chicago high school that remains relatively diverse because it hosts a long-standing International Baccalaureate program, a well known arts program and an attendance zone that is at least somewhat diverse.  This high school continues to make intentional efforts to mix students by ability for at least some classes.  A teacher there reports: “I feel like my lower performing students rose to the challenge.  They had great examples from their peers around them at all times.  And at the same time for some of my higher performing students, it was good for them to work with someone generally not at their level.”


One thought on “When Districts Create Selective High Schools, Students Segregate by Ability. Duh?

  1. I was principal of one of our highest achieving elementary schools in, not surprising, one of the highest economic areas of our city. The Board of Education divided the apartment complex housing the cities poorest families into three schools, one of those schools was the one where I was principal. Disaggregating the test data after a few years showed that the children from the subsidized apartments who attended the school consistently getting the district’s highest test scores scored statistically higher than the children who went to the other two schools. I became a believer in integration. The children from “those apartments” rose to the expectations of the “smart” school.

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