To Boost College Admissions Equity, Let’s Support High-Achieving Freshmen of Color

The first year of high school is a challenge to everyone. CPS has increased supports for high school freshmen, but high-achievers are still shorted. A new report suggests this has lasting consequences for district equity in college admissions.

In a district where many students may have attended the same school from kindergarten through eighth grade, ninth grade means finding a place in a whole new environment, building friendships in a whole new peer group and meeting higher expectations from teachers while receiving less personal attention and support. It also demands significant changes to kids’ daily routines, with earlier start times and longer, more complicated commutes to and from school.

Late last week, the UChicago Consortium on Chicago School Research and the To and Through Project released Hidden Risk, a deep dive into whose GPAs drop the most from eighth grade to ninth grade.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of students see their GPAs drop between eighth and ninth grade. In fact, the report shows that the only students, in aggregate, whose GPAs increase were the lowest-achieving 8th-graders. It seems likely that efforts to keep high school freshmen on-track benefit these students the most.

Meanwhile, however, high-achieving Black and Latinx students “were especially likely to suffer large declines in core GPA during the transition to high school.” These declines were especially large for Black and Latino students in selective enrollment high schools. And they have consequences for students’ college admissions chances. Low freshmen GPAs weaken overall high school GPAs, meaning by senior year, those students may not make the admissions bar for colleges where they actually could succeed.

The report urges school teams responsible for freshman success to pay greater attention to high-achieving Black and Latinx students in ninth grade in order to ensure their GPAs remain competitive for college admissions. “Large GPA declines between the eighth and ninth grades put many Black and Latin[x] ninth-graders who begin high school with a history of high academic achievement out of range for likely admission to selective colleges and universities, contributing to racial disparities in CPS students’ college outcomes.” In other words, don’t assume that Black and Latinx students who arrive high-achieving will maintain that achievement in the high school environment without teachers’ intentional support.

If we want to end inequity in college admissions across CPS, it’s time to take a hard look at the experience students of color are having in selective enrollment high schools. As a parent of a Latina elementary school student, I’m heeding the advice of other parents (some citing research!) that suggest neighborhood IB schools are more likely to provide strong support for high-achieving students of color. I’m hopeful my daughter will be attending Back of the Yards High School, a “wall-to-wall” IB high school recently named one of the top high schools in the city by Chicago Magazine.

In a society that often overlooks intellectual ability in Black and Latinx children, as evidenced by the change in their rates of admission to elementary gifted programs when universal screening has been implemented (as it was in Broward County, Florida, before budget cuts eliminated the program), we have a lot of work to do to ensure all our children’s talents are recognized and supported.

Ensuring high-achieving students of all backgrounds are supported to reach their full potential is very important equity work that deserves attention from the district as well as in the media. While the Chicago Sun-Times and Chalkbeat was right to report on the essential overall message–that all grades in all subjects are important, including course failures in subjects like physical education, health and arts–the need to support high-achieving students of color is another important story from the report that also deserves attention.

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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