research

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. 

focusing in

Black student excellence: Denver school board directs district to better serve black students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Mary Getachew, 15, right, laughs with her peer mentor Sabrin Mohamed,18, left, at Denver's North High School in 2016.

Every Denver public school soon will be required to develop a plan to boost the success of black and African-American students by embracing their strengths rather than focusing on the challenges they face.

That’s according to a resolution unanimously passed Thursday night by the Denver school board. The resolution, which would also require district employees to take training on implicit bias, was shepherded by Jennifer Bacon, who was elected in 2017 to represent northeast Denver and is one of two black members on the diverse school board. Longer-serving board members said it was overdue.

“With good intentions, we were battling the idea that singling out a group of students was not acceptable,” said Happy Haynes, who has served on the board since 2011. “We were always talking about, ‘all students, all students.’”

In doing so, Haynes said, “we lost sight of so many of our students. So I really celebrate this change in our thinking.”

Denver Public Schools’ data show big disparities in how black students are served by the district. While 13 percent of the approximately 93,000 students are black,

  • 28 percent of out-of-school suspensions last year were given to black students,
  • 16.5 percent of students identified as having a disability were black,
  • Just 10 percent of students enrolled in rigorous high school courses were black.

The focus on black students comes after more than a year of relentless and high-profile advocacy from black parents and activists, and 2½ years after a damning report about how black teachers and students are treated in Denver Public Schools.

Known colloquially as the Bailey Report, it was based on interviews with black educators conducted by former school board member Sharon Bailey, who has studied racial dynamics in Denver. It found that black educators feel isolated and mistreated by the district, and perceive that black students are more harshly disciplined in part because the young white women who make up a sizeable portion of the teacher workforce are afraid of them.

The report led to a task force, which presented the district with 11 recommendations. Among them: offering signing bonuses to help attract more black teachers, making student discipline data count toward school ratings, and requiring each school to create a plan “designed to strengthen relationships between African-Americans and schools.”

Nearly two years later, none of that has happened. And much of what the district has done has been voluntary for teachers and schools. Meanwhile, the data keeps mounting.

Last year, 67 percent of black students graduated on time, meaning within four years of starting high school, compared with 78 percent of white students. On state math tests, 17 percent of black students in grades three through eight scored on grade level, compared with 65 percent of white students. The literacy gap was similar.

Avery Williams, a senior at George Washington High School, told the school board at a work session in December that “there’s an awkwardness around being black” in Denver schools.

“Teachers, specifically white teachers, don’t know how to act around me,” Williams said. Many of her classmates, she said, “do not know how to have respectful conversations because they’re afraid of being offensive or because they’re not educated in the right terminology.”

Michael Filmore, a junior at East High School, spoke about being one of only a few black students in his more rigorous classes, an experience Williams shares. After taking remedial classes his freshman year at East, Filmore said he decided to take all honors classes as a sophomore. He also took the public bus to school and was often late for first period.

“I would walk in the classroom and I would feel like I didn’t belong there,” Filmore told the board. “I felt uncomfortable and that I shouldn’t be in these classes. I was pressured. I eventually dropped the class. My junior year, I felt that I would never let myself down again.”

At that December session, Bacon expressed a desire to more explicitly address issues affecting black students. The district has put that kind of focus on students learning English as a second language, many of whom are Hispanic, after a federal judge found the district was violating their rights. Under that order, the district has developed specific methods for teaching English language learners. It requires all new teachers to get certified to teach them.

Bacon and others questioned why that hasn’t happened for black students, as well.

“It’s not because there’s a lack of effort, will, or love,” Bacon said in an interview. “I think it’s because we’re not organized properly and we don’t have an internal stake in the ground around expectations, outcomes, and accountability measures. People want to see DPS is doing that.”

Her fellow board members agreed. On Thursday, they took turns thanking her for bringing forth the resolution, which directs the district to do several things:

  • Require all schools, including district-run and charter schools, to review data about student academic performance, discipline, and referrals for special education to understand how each school’s black students are doing “on an individual level”
  • Require all schools to set goals for supporting black students that prioritize giving them “access to grade-level and more rigorous coursework”
  • Require school leaders to articulate how they will monitor progress toward their goals
  • Train all district staff on implicit bias and culturally responsive education
  • Conduct an “equity audit” to understand what the district is doing well and what it is not to figure out how it “can better prioritize the success of our black students”

It will now be up to new Superintendent Susana Cordova, who made equity a cornerstone of her bid for the district’s top job, to carry out the directive. The resolution gives her until May 31 to come up with a plan that would go into effect by the start of the next school year.

“We know that we have a painful and inequitable history of outcomes for our students,” Cordova said. “But facing this with courage, facing this in community, facing this with our stakeholders, our parents, our family members, our community members, and our students holding us accountable, I believe deeply in the ability of people to come together to solve these problems.”

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.