August 17, 2006
Vol. 25 No. 20

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    Small school reform shows many improvements, but not in students’ test scores

    By William Harms
    News Office


    Small high school reform in Chicago is delivering on many of its promises, including a reduction in student dropouts and improvements in attendance, but it has yet to show test score improvements, according to the first comprehensive report on the reform prepared by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University.

    The report, “Small High Schools on a Larger Scale,” looks at the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative from 2002 through 2005, studying both school climate and student outcomes. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and several local foundations have dedicated $26 million to the reform, which has led to the opening of almost two dozen small high schools across the city.

    These new small schools are intended to serve between 120 and 500 students, as well as provide both teachers and students with a more personalized environment for teaching and learning. This report covers the first three years of the initiative in which 16 schools were started.

    The report found that the reform works when it comes to keeping students involved in school: 20 percent of the students enrolled in the first cohort of five new small schools dropped out by the end of their junior year, compared with 27 percent of similar students at large high schools. Author Joseph Kahne noted that, “graduating from high school makes a huge difference in terms of employment and earnings. If the promising lower dropout rates noted in this study translate into improved graduation rates, this reform will substantively improve the lives of these students.”

    Attendance also was better: the students in small schools spent nearly a week longer in classes than those in large schools because their absence rate was lower (25 days compared with 28 days at larger schools for juniors and 20 days for CHSRI (Chicago High School Redesign Initiative) freshmen compared with 26 days for similar students at larger schools).


    In addition, in order for any school reform to be effective, researchers contend that students need more academic rigor. When compared with students in larger schools, this study found that juniors in the small schools felt more challenged by their teachers than did similar students in other schools. Also, both juniors and freshmen enrolled in the smaller schools were more focused on post-high-school goals.

    Teachers in the small schools also reported more collegiality, a higher level of coherence in the instructional program and a greater interest in innovative classroom approaches.

    However, principals of the smaller schools were not viewed as being better instructional leaders than their counterparts at larger schools, and teachers did not report that professional development opportunities were any better than teachers in larger schools— factors that may be associated with the lack of improvement in test scores.

    “We saw evidence that instruction was the same for similar students in CHSRI and non-CHSRI settings. Given that we did not see a CHSRI effect on instruction, it is not surprising that we failed to find evidence that attending a small school promoted higher test scores,” said report author Susan Sporte.


    The 2005 PSAE scores for 11th-grade students in nine CHSRI schools (a score of 145) were similar to those in the larger schools (a score of 144.6). In mathematics, the CHSRI juniors had a test score of 139.4 compared with 139.2 in larger schools.

    The authors noted that 12 of the 16 schools studied were schools created from larger schools that were on probation at the time of the conversion. The teachers in these small schools mainly came from those larger schools, and the students were largely drawn from a student pool that likely would have attended the larger schools.

    The other four schools started as new schools in some of Chicago’s less-advantaged neighborhoods. On average, students in all 16 schools were more disadvantaged and had lower incoming test scores than the typical Chicago public school students. The average reading level tested at 228 (about sixth grade) for the small-school students in the study, compared with an average of 240 for all nonselective high schools. The students also were more likely to be older than the average student for their grade level and to have experienced multiple moves during their last three years in elementary school.

    Report authors are Joseph Kahne, a researcher from Mills College, Oakland, Calif.; Susan Sporte and Marisa de Torre at the Consortium for Chicago School Research; and John Easton, Executive Director of the Consortium for Chicago School Research.