You thought failing P.E. or art in high school doesn’t matter? Not so, new Chicago study says.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Failing a class like art or physical education in the freshman year could be just as damaging to a student’s chance of graduating as failing English, math, or science, a newly released study of Chicago schools has found.

That surprising discovery is among the findings in a series of reports by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research that put the ninth-grade year under a microscope. The consortium’s previous research stressed how a freshman’s grade-point average and attendance impacts key outcomes, such as whether he or she graduates from high school.

Previously, that landmark research — which has been examined across the country as a way to boost achievement in poor urban districts — had looked exclusively at core classes such as math. Released Thursday, one new paper, titled “Hidden Risk,” takes a more expansive view.

“If you fail P.E., your probability of graduating is a little bit lower than if you failed just algebra, or just English, or just biology,” said Jenny Nagaoka, the deputy director of the Consortium on School Research. “We tend to discount less academic classes, but they are as predictive of graduation as core subjects.”

In Chicago, hardly any eighth-graders fail PE, Nagaoka noted. But in ninth grade, almost 10 percent fail. She attributed that sharp spike to non-academic challenges that, nonetheless, can seriously impact class performance, such as “not dressing for gym because of resistance to changing in the locker room,” or unclean uniforms, if, say, a family doesn’t have regular access to a washer.

Overall, the most recent freshmen studied saw their GPAs drop 0.31 point from their eighth-grade year, and that transition spotlights a trouble spot for the district, schools chief Janice Jackson acknowledged.

“We need to make sure that parents and students understand the expectations, and (before middle school ends) start to introduce concepts that may be new to them,” Jackson said, “one of those being the importance of your grade-point average. Once students have an awareness and can follow their own progress, it helps.”

Black and Latina females saw the largest average GPA declines, according to the consortium report, but black and Latino males started high school with significantly lower GPAs.

For Jackson, those numbers show that it’s time for the district to pay closer attention to the gender gap as well as students failing non-core classes. “I can see this influencing practice at the school level,” Jackson told Chalkbeat. “There is the next edge of growth, and this data has really pointed that out.”

At North-Grand High School, one principal has taken up several strategies to tackle the bumpy transition to high school as well as some gender-based performance gaps.

Entering ninth-graders at the West Side high school take a weeklong orientation before their freshman year. They get instruction in math and literacy and also take classes that address emotional changes in high school.

“Having this class that they take where they are learning about things like how do I stay on top of my grades, or why does a GPA matter, teaches them those skills to be in control and take some ownership over their learning,” Principal Emily Feltes said.

Freshman boys also receive extra attention at North-Grand, with counselors following their academic learning and emotional growth through the year.

The school encourages students to choose electives like music or art depending on their interests.  “A whole lot of what has to do with freshman success is learning about identity, and figuring out a system that works for them,” Feltes said.

In two of the reports, Hidden Risk and the Educational Attainment of Chicago Public Schools students, released Thursday, researchers also found:   

  • Ninth-grade students more than doubled their chances of earning a bachelor’s degree within six years of high school graduation.
  • The district increased by 18 percentage points the high-school graduation rate, to 74 percent
  • District graduates kept their four-year college graduation rate at around 50 percent
  • The GPA declines in P.E. and the arts “greatly exceeded” the average grade drop that students saw in core subjects
  • Students at the highest risk for dropping out of school were also the most likely to see a disproportionate drop in art and PE
  • Like the grade decrease in math and English, black and Latino students again saw the sharpest grade drop in PE and art.  

But despite the overall positive trend, the data showed that students transitioning from eighth grade into high school struggled to maintain their GPA, both in academic and non-academic subjects.

Clarification (Oct. 12, 2018): This story was updated to reflect that three separate reports were released Thursday and to more clearly link GPA findings with high school graduation rates, but not with college attainment. 

School letter grades

Lame Duck Michigan lawmakers just voted on A-F grades for schools. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

The Michigan House, in the wee hours of the morning, passed the controversial bill that requires creating an A-F letter grading system for state schools.

The bill stirred controversy over concerns that it could strip power from elected education officials and unfairly stigmatize struggling schools. Even though the bill that passed was different from the one that has been debated for months, many issues remain.

We slogged through all 74 pages to break down what this legislation will mean for you, if it passes. Here are the highlights:

It’s not a done deal:

The bill now goes on to the state Senate, after passing the House on the narrowest of margins: 56 to 53. Fifty-five votes were needed for passage.

If the Senate, which is expected to take up the bill next week, OKs the bill, it still would need to be signed by Gov. Rick Snyder. His spokesman isn’t saying whether the governor would sign the current version.

Snyder “will need to review the bill closely before he makes that decision, especially since it just went through a number of revisions,” before House passage.

An A or an F: 

The state Department of Education would be required — by Sept. 1, 2019 — to issue letter grades in five categories:

  • The number of students whose scores on state exams indicate they are proficient in math and English language arts.
  • The percentage of students who achieve an adequate amount of improvement in math and English language arts on state exams.
  • The percentage of students who are still learning English, and who also achieve an adequate amount of improvement toward becoming proficient in the language.
  • High school graduation rates.
  • The school’s overall academic performance and how it compares to schools across the state with similar demographics.

What’s new in this latest version of the bill? There originally were six categories. House members removed chronic absenteeism and the percentage of students who took state exams from the list. They added the last category.

Schools will be ranked, too:

By Sept. 1, the department will also have to assign rankings of significantly above average, above average, average, below average, or significantly below average in three categories:

  • The rate of students who are chronically absent.
  • Percentage of students who took state exams.
  • The performance of student subgroups and how that compares to statewide results for subgroups. Subgroups in Michigan include students of color, students from low-income homes, students learning English, and students with special education needs.

Peer review panel:

The latest version of the bill calls for the state education department  to develop the A-F accountability system. But the department would have to submit its proposed standards for determining letter grades and rankings to a peer review panel.

The panel wouldn’t have the power to approve or reject the standards. But it would be required to submit its findings about the proposed standards to the department and to the House and Senate education committees.

Rep. Tim Kelly, the Republican from Saginaw Township who authored the bill, said that if the panel doesn’t like the system the department creates, it would make that clear to lawmakers, who would have the power to take action.

Who’s on the panel? The five members would have to include five “individuals with expertise in school accountability systems.” Three of the five would be appointed by the governor, and the other two would be appointed by leaders of the House and Senate.

What’s new? Previous versions of the bill called for a 13-member commission that would have had far broader powers. It would have been charged with creating the A-F system — taking control of the system out of the hands of the elected state Board of Education and the education department it oversees.

No immediate impact:

The House didn’t give the bill immediate effect, which means it won’t go into effect until 90 days after it’s signed by Snyder. If it clears the Senate the same way, it would mean incoming Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and not Snyder, would control the panel.

Detroit’s plan derailed?

If the A-F plan is enacted, it will kill plans underway in Detroit to develop a citywide letter grading system for public schools. It was a requirement of the 2016 legislation that resolved the debt in the Detroit school district. But when that law was passed, it was with the stipulation that if a statewide system was developed, it would take precedence.

The Community Education Association, which took on the task of creating the city letter grading system, has rolled out the plan in recent months and plans to vote on it Monday.

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, a member of the commission, took to Twitter on Thursday afternoon to express his disappointment with the House vote, saying the commission’s work was “disrespected and ignored.”


The education department would have to develop standards for identifying the lowest performing schools, described as “comprehensive support and improvement schools.” The number of such schools “shall not exceed a number equal to 5 percent of all public schools in the state,” the legislation says.

Which schools would meet the definition? A school would have to fall into any one of these categories.

  • A high school that graduates fewer than two-thirds of its students.
  • A school that receives an F in each of the five categories.
  • A school that meets any other criteria under the federal education law.

Is there a hammer?

Yes, but it’s unclear how heavy it will be. By Dec. 1, 2019, the department would have to develop “accountability measures to impose on public schools,” that are in the bottom 5 percent. But the legislation doesn’t say what those potential measures should be. Currently, the state has the power to close chronically low-performing schools, though it has never exercised that option.

high-stress testing

How the stress of state testing might make it harder for some students to show what they know

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

The annual ritual of state testing in elementary and middle schools often comes within an unwelcome side effect: jittery, stressed-out kids.

Now, a first-of-its-kind study documents some of what’s actually happening to students.

It found that students in one New Orleans charter network saw modest spikes in cortisol, a hormone caused by stress, leading up to state exams. And the students whose cortisol spiked most or crashed furthest did worse than predicted — suggesting that the test scores reflect not just what students know, but how they perform under pressure.

The five researchers behind the study call that a “stress bias.” The paper finds some evidence that students living in higher-crime, higher-poverty neighborhoods are most affected.

That’s not surprising from a biological perspective, said Pamela Cantor, a psychiatrist and the founder of Turnaround for Children, a group that works to address the effects of trauma on children in schools.

“What we’re in effect doing to kids who are exposed to adversity on a chronic basis is actually putting them in a highly unfair situation, where their biology may overreact to the stress and not give them a very good opportunity to reveal the things they likely know,” she said.

The research looks at fewer than 100 students, and some of the findings are ambiguous. “I don’t want to make broad policy claims based on this one paper with a relatively small sample size in one setting,” said lead author Jennifer Heissel, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. But, she said, “if this is replicated in other settings for other students, we need to reconsider perhaps what we are using high-stakes tests for.”

The study, released earlier this month through the National Bureau of Economic Research, focuses on a network of three charter schools in New Orleans. The researchers analyzed an unusual data source: saliva samples of 93 elementary and middle students, obtained with parents’ consent, during the 2015-16 school year.

The research team compared cortisol levels of students at three points: during a regular week, a week when students took a low-stakes practice test, and the week students took the state test.

Cortisol is a hormone that generally increases after someone wakes up and declines from there. It jumps in response to stress or challenges and decreases due to boredom or disengagement.

The researchers focus on cortisol levels in the period right before the exam, when students were likely to be most be stressed about testing. Indeed, cortisol levels were about 15 percent higher at that time during testing week than they were during a regular week.

“That is in line with other stressors you might encounter through your day,” Heissel explained.

But some students responded more dramatically. “On average, there’s this increase, but individual kids are going in different directions,” she said.

Students whose cortisol noticeably spiked or dipped tended to perform worse than expected on the state test, controlling for past grades and test scores. Boys saw bigger changes than girls. and so did students from higher-poverty neighborhoods, though this difference was not statistically significant. (Keep in mind that the students in the study were almost all low-income, so there was limited room for comparison.)

Source: “Testing, Stress, and Performance: How Students Respond Physiologically to High-Stakes Testing”

It’s possible that some students’ jumps or dips in cortisol during testing week were due to other factors in their lives. But Cantor of Turnaround for Children said it’s not surprising that tests would induce stress, or that students more likely to have experienced trauma would respond differently.

“For children who face adversity in a chronic way, that system is pumped and primed much more so than other kids,” Cantor said. “If a child does overreact to a trigger, one of the ways that manifests itself is that they shut down, they freeze.”

Is that a “stress bias”? If tests unfairly penalize students who respond poorly to stress, that might suggest that “tests aren’t fully capturing what we want and perhaps what we are thinking that they capture,” said Heissel.

Another interpretation, she noted, is that the ability to perform well under pressure is part of what exams measure, and that it’s a skill “to be able to wrangle your stress response.”

The results raise a number of unanswered questions.

One is whether the results would hold for in-class exams administered by teachers. In many cases, those tests have higher stakes for students than do state exams, which in New Orleans have been used to grade and in some cases close schools.

Another is whether the way students are prepared for state exams might affect their stress. The paper offers limited information on the charter network being studied, which is anonymous. But a number of high-profile charter schools place substantial emphasis on preparation for state tests. It’s unclear whether this approach increases or reduces test-related stress.

Either way, the latest paper suggests one way to produce better scores is to ensure students stay calm during testing.

And a final question is, how else might the stress of testing affect students? Past national research offers mixed evidence on whether No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that led to the current state testing regimen, led to general increases in student anxiety.

Cantor said that the key to buffering against adversity is having warm, positive relationships, which can prompt the release of anti-stress hormones.

“A teacher who communicates belief and confidence and inspires trust in kids — that teacher is activating a hormonal system that opposes the effects of cortisol,” she said.