The Big Sort

Chicago: 26,340 ninth graders. 130 high schools. Who goes where?

july, 17, 2014

By: Brendan Metzger and Linda Lutton

This bipartite graph shows 26,340 incoming test scores for Chicago ninth graders (left column), and connects how well students did on that test to the Chicago public high school they ended up attending (right column). It is a snapshot of the relationship between incoming student achievement scores and high school choice. Hovering over the left column highlights students who scored at that value (scores ranged from 4 to a perfect 25), and shows where students earning each score went to high school. Hovering over a school in the right column shows the achievement picture of that high school's incoming freshman class.

WBEZ was interested in examining the degree to which Chicago's school choice system is sorting students by achievement into different high schools. Read the full report and hear the stories at

The list of high schools below can be sorted to show different dynamics. For instance, there is a visible relationship between incoming test scores (EXPLORE) and a school's average ACT score. Sorting by school type shows how the city's top students are concentrated in selective enrollment schools, and how low scorers tend to go to neighborhood schools. Sorting by academic diversity shows that neighborhood schools are some of our most and least academically diverse. Trends can also be seen for race, class, and school size.

Colors represent school types: Career Academy, Charter/Contract, Neighborhood, Magnet, Military, Selective, Small. Italic text indicates a selective program inside the school, such as IB Diploma Programme. Bold text indicates magnet program(s) within the school.

Incoming Scores

High Schools

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Compare incoming 9th graders at Chicago high schools

The bar graph shows the distribution of all Chicago ninth-graders' scores on the EXPLORE exam given fall 2012 (that's the last time CPS mandated that all high schools give the test). The average score on the exam was 14.8. The graph allows users to compare a particular school's incoming freshmen to all incoming freshmen in the city (you can also compare multiple schools by holding down the CTRL key while selecting)

Using this graph, it's possible to see that the city's schools with the highest incoming EXPLORE scores enroll vastly disproportionate percentages of top students (maybe it's not surprising these schools are the top four in the entire state of Illnois).

The schools with the lowest incoming EXPLORE scores have huge percentages of low performers in their freshmen class.

WBEZ's test-score analysis shows that high-performing and low-performing students in particular go to completely separate high schools in Chicago. In the most extreme examples, there is almost no overlap (and almost no one at average). Adding an academically diverse high school to the graph shows it encompasses the entire range of scorers from both schools.

WBEZ's analysis also shows black students are the most affected by sorting based on achievement. Chicago has developed black schools for low performers, black schools for average kids and black schools for high achievers.

Another finding from WBEZ's analysis: even after the city's top students are sorted into the city's elite selective schools, more sorting is taking place within neighborhoods. Schools down the street from each other attract freshmen at vastly different academic levels, with new schools often attracting far greater proportions of high scorers than nearby neighborhood high schools.

Examples: the West Side; Englewood; the Southeast Side; Pilsen

That doesn't always happen. Senn and Rickover are in the same building, and although Rickover has a policy that keeps out the lowest performers, both schools attract very similar incoming freshman classes. On the Southwest side, where overcrowding has been a challenge, new schools have not creamed away top students; instead, all schools have attracted similarly achieving freshmen classes.

Chicago Citywide Results

Select a school to compare its incoming freshmen to all freshmen in the city. Use CTRL to compare multiple schools, or try the up/down arrow keys for quicker navigation.