Medill Media Teens: Changes to CPS selective enrollment process lessen burden of travel, testing for students

Eighth grade students applying to Chicago Public Schools’ selective enrollment high schools sit for an enrollment test, which just changed this year. (Illustration by Iliana Garner/MEDILL MEDIA TEENS)

As part of the Medill Media Teens program, Chicago Public School students received training and worked closely with Medill master’s students to report and write an article that covered an issue in their school community. The piece below was produced under the mentorship of Poonam Narotam (MSJ22).

By Iliana Garner
Medill Media Teens

It was 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning when Jessie Ngo-Nguyen’s mom told her to wake up. She rushed out of bed and threw on some clothes, scared she wouldn’t make it to the test before it started. Her mom drove her nearly an hour from their home in Uptown to Lane Tech High School in Roscoe Village to take the selective enrollment test, which would determine her academic future for the next four years — and maybe even beyond.

“I remember being really stressed out about it. I had a lot of pressure on myself since I wanted to achieve the best,” Ngo-Nguyen said. “It was me causing myself emotional distress.” 

By the time she turned in her answer sheet, she had been awake for over five hours with nothing in her stomach but instant ramen and a McDonald’s Frappe. 

Ngo-Nguyen went through this process four years ago. Last school year year, students simply showed up to school like any normal Tuesday morning and sat for the selective enrollment test instead of attending class. Starting in the 2021-22 school year, CPS changed the process so eighth graders take tests at their own elementary schools and seventh graders don’t have to take the Northwest Evaluation Association Measures of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP) test at all. 

District officials said they hoped this change will promote equity by giving more students opportunities to apply to selective high schools. These changes were ultimately successful last school year, with 76.6% of test takers being Black or Hispanic according to CPS testing data, up from 60% the previous year. The number of total test takers also increased, as 12,354 more students took the test than last school year. 

Furthermore, CPS officials plan to unroll more changes to distribute seats equally among districts in an effort to make selective schools representative of district demographics. 

Prior to these changes, students applied to selective high schools with their seventh grade marks, their score on the selective enrollment exam and their ranking on the NWEA MAP test. The MAP was an electronic aptitude administered to seventh graders each year. This year, the MAP was eliminated and replaced with the Star360 test, which now only serves to give teachers an assessment of a student’s academic progress. 

(Illustration by Iliana Garner/MEDILL MEDIA TEENS)

Selective enrollment schools have historically been composed of more high-income students compared with district totals. According to data from the 2021-22 school year, 48% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch in selective enrollment high schools as opposed to 76% in all CPS high schools. Additionally, selective enrollment high schools have a larger proportion of white and Asian students, with 24% of students being white as opposed to the 9% district total.

“Even if it doesn’t change the diversity of the entering classes,” said Elaine Allensworth, a researcher for educational policy and practice at the University of Chicago, “it does make the process less burdensome for students who would be otherwise applying.”

For students, the changes decreased stress associated with the process. 

Eighth grader Emily Cardona said she was relieved to hear the selective enrollment test was conducted at her school, Horace Greeley Elementary School. She said she feels more comfortable taking the test in an environment that she is used to. Greeley is a low-income elementary school located in Lakeview, with 74.7% of Greeley students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, according to 2022 CPS demographic data

In the past, low-income students could feel isolated taking the selective enrollment test in an environment where others seem leagues ahead of them. 

“It was very intimidating for me,” said Casey Kwiatkowski, who tested at Whitney Young High School three years ago “And that put a lot more pressure on me because I felt like I needed to do really well because I was testing with a bunch of ‘smart kids.’”

Removing that extra MAP test after seventh grade also relieves some of the pressure associated with preparing for it. 

“Before, you had the selective enrollment test and MAP test, and that was really hard to balance,” said Szymon Urantowka, an eighth grader at Greeley. 

Now, instead of managing grades and a test in the same year, students can focus on their grades in seventh grade and test preparation the following year. 

However, some teachers have reservations about how well students will fare in a selective enrollment process that places more emphasis on their grades. Because of pandemic-driven remote learning, last year’s grades are not the best indicator of a student’s aptitude, according to Greeley seventh grade math teacher Katie Dare. 

“For students who were in seventh grade last year (during remote learning), their seventh grade grades might not be reflective of what is typical for them when they’re in the classroom,” Dare said. 

She said she saw one of her seventh grade students who performed well in a normal year fall behind during remote learning. “If he was in seventh grade last year and didn’t do anything, but then in eighth grade, he was totally capable, those grades wouldn’t be reflective of how intelligent he is.”

Although abruptly shifting to a new process can be daunting, eighth grader Cardona ultimately felt more confident applying with the new selective enrollment process. 

“It’s a new system, and it’s our first year of doing this,” she said. “To be the first class to go through it was scary. But again, this change is good.”

Iliana Garner was a senior Northside College Prep. She is currently a first-year student at Medill.