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. 

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.)

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.

Measure of Success

State ratings identify 163 Colorado schools in need of improvement

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Students in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy.

More than 160 Colorado schools received one of the state’s two lowest ratings, making them eligible for additional assistance but also vulnerable to intervention if they don’t improve student performance.

The watch list comprises 9 percent of Colorado’s 1,800 schools and educate roughly 74,000 students, or 8.5 percent or the state’s almost 900,000 students. That means the vast majority of students in the state attend a school with one of the two higher rankings on the four-point scale.

The State Board of Education finalized the ratings Wednesday. The state gives separate district-wide ratings, which were finalized last month.

“The state’s accountability system is built on the premise that all students should receive a high quality education and graduate ready for college or careers,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, said in a statement. “Our goal is to give all students a chance to excel. These designations allow us to identify struggling schools that may need more support to help students achieve their highest aspirations. And they also highlight successful schools so that other schools can learn from them.”

All public schools receive a state rating, known as the School Performance Framework report, each year. It’s based largely on student scores on the state’s English and math tests. Student growth, or how much students learn year-to-year compared to peers with similar results on state tests, carries most weight. High school graduation and dropout rates are also factored in.

There are four ratings: performance (the highest), improvement, priority improvement and turnaround (the lowest).

Schools and districts that have one of the lower two ratings are placed on a watch list and have five years to improve before facing state intervention. Schools on the list are eligible for grants for leadership training and help from outside consultants, but if change doesn’t come fast enough, the state could hand over control to an external manager, require conversion to a charter, or close schools.

Earlier this fall, the State Board of Education ordered the Adams 14 school district, based in Commerce City, and two schools in Pueblo in southern Colorado to turn over control to external managers after earlier intervention efforts did not produce enough improvement.

Colorado is still figuring out what effective intervention looks like and if outsiders can make a difference for students that existing leadership has not been able to achieve.

Most Colorado schools maintained the same rating they had in 2017, with 15 percent moving down at least one level and 14 percent moving up at least one level. Eighteen schools improved enough to get off the state watch list, which is often known as the “accountability clock,” some after initial state intervention last year.

Six schools are entering their eighth year on the watch list: Aurora Central High School, Adams City High School, Aguilar Junior-Senior High School in the tiny Aguilar district in southern Colorado, Hope Online Learning Academy Elementary School in Douglas County, Heroes Middle School, and Risley International Academy of Innovation, the last two both in Pueblo.

Two are entering year six: Central Elementary School in the Adams 14 district and Minnequa Elementary School in Pueblo.

Another four are entering year five, now the last year to improve before state intervention: Manual High School and Montbello Career and Technical High School in Denver, Mesa Elementary in the Montezuma-Cortez district in southwest Colorado, and EDCSD: Colorado Cyber School in Douglas County.

In the past, some schools received more time to improve because the “clock” was paused for several years as the state changed assessments. But now there are no more extensions beyond year five.

Colorado Department of Education

Of the state’s 42 online schools, a little more than half received one of the top two ratings, and 31 percent did not report enough data for the state to grant a rating. Colorado has more stringent regulations of online schools than many states, but there is an ongoing debate about how well these schools serve students.

About 84 percent of the state’s 247 charter schools received one of the top two ratings, compared to 89 percent of all Colorado schools. Twenty-six charter schools, or 10.5 percent, received one of the lowest two ratings.

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