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School Districts 202 and 65 have each adopted goals that our children be on track to college readiness. In collaboration with the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at Northwestern University, they are now in the process of trying to redefine what that means, specifically what is a “successful” college outcome for our children. This is critically important because the chosen outcome – really, the goal – will be used to set expectations for our children (from pre-K through senior year in high school), it will be used to identify students who need additional supports to achieve the goal, and it will be used to determine curricula and programming in both Districts.

Under the plan, the District 202 and 65 School Boards will first agree on a college outcome that is short of graduation – but which they deem is predictive of graduation. Based on the discussion at a joint meeting of the Boards on Oct. 24, it appears the Boards are inclined to select “persistence” to either the third semester or to the fifth semester of college as the desired college outcome. Once the outcome is chosen, the Districts, in collaboration with IPR, will identify multiple measures (e.g., scores on a standardized test, grade point average, disciplinary incidents, attendance patterns, passing an AP course, etc.) that will predict whether their students will reach the agreed-upon college outcome.

We will summarize three concerns.

Raise the Expectations From a GPA of 2.0

First, Districts 202 and 65 are proposing to choose a college outcome that students persist to a third or fifth semester in college. What does this mean in terms of academic success? On the low end, a student may persist from one semester to the next in college if he or she has an overall college grade point average of 2.0, or if he or she qualifies for academic probation.

Under this approach, the Districts are proposing to link their “multiple measures” to a GPA of 2.0 or less. A GPA of 2.0 is not an average grade in college. One major study found the 77% of the grades given in four-year colleges are As and Bs. An update to that study found that in 2013, the average college student had a GPA of 3.15. In reality, a GPA of 2.0 is the borderline between passing and failing in college.

The School Districts are currently on a path to developing a highly sophisticated system to measure whether students are on track to earning a GPA of 2.0 in college. We think the Boards should raise the expectations.

Persistence in What Type of College?

A second issue is deciding the type of college we want our students to be able to gain acceptance to and succeed in. For example, is it our goal to prepare students to gain acceptance to and succeed in a competitive four-year college, or is acceptance and persistence in an open-enrollment community college enough?

In a huge effort, the Districts and IPR have determined the graduation rates of ETHS students from three types of colleges: Tier 1 (which includes the most, high, and very competitive colleges); Tier 2 (which includes competitive colleges), and Tier 3 (which includes somewhat competitive or open enrollment colleges). Their analysis provides the basis for choosing a distinct outcome for each of these tiers, and in turn three distinct sets of measures that predict whether students will be academically prepared to gain acceptance to and meet the chosen outcomes in Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 colleges. Developing a separate set of measures for each tier of schools would be a positive step.

A different approach that is on the table is determining a single set of measures that would be applicable across all types of schools. This approach raises real concerns.

The proposed model defines “graduation” as receiving a certificate or an associate’s degree from a community college or a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college.  If a student chooses to go to a community college or a non-selective four-year college for personal or financial reasons, that is one thing. But we think all students should be prepared academically so if they want to enroll and succeed in a competitive college (such as Northern Illinois University) or a very competitive college (such as University of Illinois at Chicago), they will have the opportunity to do so.

One key factor influencing our view is that ETHS students who enroll in a two-year college or open-admission colleges have a graduation rate of only 32%, those enrolling in a competitive college have a graduation rate of 59%, and those enrolling in the most/highly/very competitive colleges have a 88% graduation rate. Research shows that students with the same qualifications when leaving high school are much more likely to graduate if they attend a college with a high institutional graduation rate. See e.g., “The Educational Attainment of Chicago Public Schools Students, A Focus on Four-Year College Degrees” (2014).

Our goal should be to prepare our students with the academic qualifications to attend and succeed in competitive or very competitive four-year colleges.

Some Data Issues

A report cited by ETHS administrators in several memos earlier this year raises another concern. The report called, “Answers in the Tool Box: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor’s Degree Attainment,” says, “Without credit accumulation information, structural equations with ‘persistence’ as an outcome are very deceiving, and are apt to overstate the influence of affective factors as opposed to academic achievement.”

As we understand it, ETHS lacks data showing whether its graduates took a remedial course in college or dropped a course without a penalty, and lacks data showing the number of credits that students have earned. The lack of this type of data caused the authors of the Tool Box report to say, “We have no idea, for example, what a one-year persistence rate means.”

In their work to date, the Districts and IPR have attempted to address the lack of remedial and course work data by determining the graduation rate of students who enroll in a third, fourth, etc. semester. For students in Tier 1, who have a graduation rate of 92% when they enroll in a third semester, we think the concerns raised in the Tool Box report are minimal. The vast majority of those students are on track to graduate. But only 44% of the students who enroll in a third semester in Tier 3 colleges go on to graduate. For this pool of students, we think the concerns raised in the Tool Box report have not been resolved. Yet, the academic characteristics of this pool of students would still be used to identify the measures that predict college readiness. Their characteristics will significantly influence – and lower – the academic measures identified.

Conclusion: We encourage the Boards to link college readiness measures to doing B level work in a competitive or very competitive four-year college. This is an ambitious commitment. But we should not doubt that Evanston schools, together with the many organizations partnering with them in the Evanston Cradle to Career initiative, can adequately prepare our children so they have the opportunity to enroll in and succeed in those colleges. With proper supports, we believe all of our children can succeed.