One goal for a new high school application system for Chicago Public Schools was to make the process more equitable for students. A new study finds the system didn't produce any changes in enrollment patterns in its first year.
A new centralized high school application process was intended to expose Chicago students to more options, but low-income and black students continued to be more likely than others to attend poor-performing high schools, according to a study released on Thursday.
The analysis of data from the first year of the application process, called GoCPS, offers insight into what is preventing low-income black students from accessing highly rated schools.
Chicago Public Schools long used a cumbersome set of applications to its 130-plus high schools. Students would fill out different applications for each type of school and could get multiple offers. Under the new system that launched fall 2017, the application is centralized online and students can get up to two offers: one from a selective enrollment test-in school and another offer from all the other types of high schools, including charters, neighborhood high schools, and specialty schools.
A preliminary analysis studied where students applied, and the one released Thursday also looked at where students actually attended. Less than half of all black ninth graders enrolled in highly rated schools and a quarter landed in the high schools with the worst ratings.
In comparison, 70% of Latino students were in the best schools and about 8% in the worst, and 90% of white students were in the best schools and less than 3% were in the worst, according to the analysis by researchers at the University of Chicago's Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
When she was rolling out the new application process last year, CPS CEO Janice Jackson said it would improve equity as more students would apply for high schools. In the past, some families would be deeply involved in the complicated application process and others would not.
The analysis shows that, in fact, last year more than 90% of eighth graders did apply through the new GoCPS system. In a statement, the school district said, "GoCPS was designed to inform families about their options and make it easy for them to apply to high schools and we are encouraged by the report's findings, which show that families are highly engaged and invested in this process."
But GoCPS did not change enrollment patterns by getting black students into better schools, as Jackson had hoped, according to the analysis. In response to that, the CPS statement said the school district is "eager to learn more about families' preferences, accessibility, and equity as we continue this process."
Consortium researcher Lauren Sartain said there were several points where black students differed from other students and that these offer insights into what is happening.
First off, poor, black students applied to more high schools than other students, but they were less likely to list highly rated ones. Students could apply to up to 20 schools and then rank them. Affluent, white students on average applied to the least number of schools.
Only 60% of black student ranked a program at a highly rated school. That compares to 82% of Latino students and 94% of white students.
Sartain said there could be several reasons for this. Among them, she said students might want to go to schools close to home, and there are fewer highly rated schools in black neighborhoods. Further, students and their families might hear that a school offers other supports or activities that appeal to them, even if the school is not highly rated.
Julian High School, for example, is a Level 2-plus school, which is the third highest ranking out of five, which means it is not considered highly rated. But students might want to go there for its career and technical offerings or its sports programs. The researchers considered only the top two rankings as "highly rated."
Another issue could be that some of the highly rated schools and programs have grade or test-score cutoffs in order to apply. Sartain notes that performance on standardized tests is closely correlated with race and socioeconomic status.
"It could be the case that black students, for example, are less likely to meet those sort of eligibility requirements," she said.
Follow through is lacking
A second place where the analysis shows that black students get stymied is with post-application requirements.
Many programs, such as International Baccalaureate and military, require students to take additional steps after applying in order to be considered, and 71% of black students failed to follow through. This was most common for IB programs where students had to attend an information session. Overall, about 50% of applicants didn't complete one required step.
Sartain said the school district may consider revising these requirements so they are easier to meet.
"It is certainly an area where families and students might need some extra nudges or reminders," Sartain said. "You applied to this program and now you need to do X, Y and Z in order to be considered for an offer."
Sartain said the good news is that GoCPS is exposing these barriers. In the past, the application process was so disjointed it was impossible to see what exactly was preventing students from getting into top-rated schools.
She said it is also telling that most students enrolled in the school where they accepted an offer. Of all of those who did not get an offer, nearly 40% did not wind up attending Chicago Public Schools for high school. All students are guaranteed a spot in their neighborhood school — no application is required for the general programs at those schools.
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.