Guide to Public High Schools in the Western Suburbs
That Hinsdale Central High School is consistently at the top of most evaluative rankings of west suburban public high schools comes as no surprise to residents of this affluent western suburb. Known throughout the area for excellence in sports and a rich selection of extracurricular programs, its students also score high in academics, particularly in the all-important college entrance exam, with a sterling ACT average of 27. Graduation rates (95 percent) and college enrollment stats (87 percent enter college within 18 months of graduation) are also impressive.
So does that mean that students are best served at Hinsdale Central and the other chart-topping schools on page 55? Neuqua Valley is a mere point behind Hinsdale in ACT scores, with the other Naperville high schools and York Community High School in Elmhurst close at its heels. Even schools in the middle of the list, such as Westmont, Downers Grove and Schaumburg, all boast ACT scores above the state average of 21 and graduate more than 90 percent of their students.
The answer is yes . . . and no. There’s no denying that hard numbers are helpful when comparing schools across a region. After all, those figures — and their impact on home values — often influence the decision by families to move into towns in the suburbs in the first place. But it’s important not to rely on single factors, such as the results of standardized tests,
to take the full measure of a school that is so much more than a number; it’s a micro-environment for student growth and development as well as achievement. Fortunately, the Illinois State Board of Education has made it fairly easy to access a snapshot of area schools that, while still using quantitative data, provides a fuller picture of the high school experience. Mere clicks away at www.illinoisreportcard.com, there is a wealth of school-specific information on academic performance, including availability of — and success rates in — Advance Placement tests and early college coursework.
In addition to lists of academic programs offered, the report card lists technical and vocational education courses. Just as useful, there is information on athletics, extracurricular activities, student clubs, and awards the school has won, not just in sports but everything from math and music to science and speech. Further, each school’s snapshot provides insight into family income levels, student-body diversity and attendance/dropout rates. All these characteristics are easily compared among schools within a district or across the state.
Yet the ability to evaluate schools based on academic programming, athletics, college readiness and vocational preparation does not lead to conclusions that one school is “better” than another. The data in the charts on pages 54-55 makes evident another key factor — spending.
A quick scan of those chart-topping schools, particularly a comparison of test scores, spending-per-student and teacher/admin salaries, raises a simple observation — schools in affluent suburbs clearly do better on standardized tests. But why?
The link between socio-economic status and school achievement is far from a new phenomenon. Statistically, children from low-income families do not perform as well academically as their middle-class peers. But, again, why?
Educators know that affluent parents often promote education. The reason is fairly obvious — a single parent holding down two jobs may simply not have the time to sit down and help with homework or even make sure it is done. Other parents may not have graduated themselves and are not able to pass on study skill sets or an attitude of academic achievement to their children.
So, what are the critical components of a great high school? Certainly, first-rate facilities, plentiful resources, strong administrative and college guidance staff and gifted, well-trained teachers are key, but the value of involved parents who prize education shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s worth remembering, too, that good schools don’t operate in a vacuum: the best of them enjoy the full support of the communities in which they are located.
There are some exceptionally strong schools in the western suburbs and, as the numbers here attest, even those at the lower end of the charts compare positively with schools in other parts of the state or in the city of Chicago.
Most schools, from community colleges on up to the Ivy League, form their own evaluations of the rigor of individual high schools based on their experiences with its graduates. By
tracking students after they enroll, college admissions officers get a sense of how well a particular school prepares applicants to deal with academic workloads and otherwise succeed on campus.
So, while test scores and the reputation of a high school are important, they are just two of the many considerations that influence a college decision or — looking beyond that —
a successful career outcome.
CHANGES IN TESTING AHEAD
Standardized testing in Illinois is in a state of flux. In 2016, American College Testing’s 15-year contract to provide statewide college-entrance testing — the ACT — expired. As of Spring 2017, schools were directed instead to administer the SAT, the Scholastic Acceptance Test designed by The College Board. Some school districts in the western suburbs voiced concern that the sudden switch was unfair to college-bound students who were used to — and had prepped for — the ACT format. Joliet District 204 and Riverside-Brookfield District 208, among others, made the decision to pay $60 per student to keep the ACT in place for one more year, delaying the transition until 2018. Both tests cover similar ground, but while the ACT has a separate science section, the SAT integrates sciences throughout.
Confusing matters further, 2016 also saw the retiring of the controversial and unpopular PARCC testing program, at least for the higher grades. Designed to replace the Illinois Prairie State Achievement Exam, administered in 11th grade, the test was intended to provide educators with “readiness” information they could use to improve schools. Parents and teachers alike protested that PARCC reduced instructional time and added an extra burden to over-tested students. A glance at the PARCC test results in the chart on page 55 shows how out of synch its results are among other academic indicators. Next year, PARCC will be replaced by an early SAT option for 11th graders.