How does a student get into Proviso Math and Science Academy? The Proviso Township High School District 209 school board got a glimpse inside the admissions process for the selective high school on Oct. 21.
PMSA Principal Bessie Karvelas’ presentation and answers to questions drew criticism from the board. Practices such as using the now-defunct Explore test, having teachers grade essays, changing the weight of test scores and waiting too late to inform families of admission decisions were all challenged.
Board members expressed concern that the process permitted students to be admitted based on favoritism. They also said criteria used might not be the best predictors of success at the school.
The board also voted to continue the school’s no-transfer policy.
Board member Claudia Medina said, “People tell me PMSA is a crap shoot. They would rather sell their house and move away [than risk sending their children to Proviso schools.]”
School board member Ned Wagner, meanwhile, said that the shroud needed to be drawn back from the process, so parents could understand how it worked.
“Admission to PMSA has to be transparent and understandable to guidance counselors and parents,” Wagner said.
Karvelas explained that admission is based on grades, an Explore skills test, an IQ test, an in-school essay, and an application listing clubs, hobbies and extracurriculars.
But board members questioned the process, starting with the use of the Explore test, which has been replaced statewide by the Aspire test and is no longer paid for by the state of Illinois.
Karvelas said the school tried Aspire and found it less useful than the Explore as a predictor of student skills to handle the rigor of the school.
“We’re using retired tests we have in the building,” Karvelas said, meaning copies of tests that were used in prior years were recycled. She noted that the tests were sent out to be scored by Cambridge Educational Services, and they were not scored in-house.
Board Member Kevin McDermott said, “The problem with old tests is there are answer keys floating around.”
Medina said one complaint about Explore and IQ tests was they had been found to be possibly racially biased.
“There are other options. There are admissions tests out there,” she said.
Board members also questioned the practice of having teachers grade the essays. Karvelas explained the school received 500 essays every year and “everyone has to help grade.”
Karvelas was unclear when asked if the student’s names were on the essays. She said she believed the student’s names were on a folder containing all of their admission materials, and that the folder also contained the essay.
“You’re so busy reading it, I don’t think anybody looks at the name,” she said.
Consultant Leslie Wilson, who was hired to write a history of PMSA this fall, told the board that essays were graded in a blind process, but later said she did not personally witness essays being graded. The district was too small to hire an admissions director or readers, Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart told the board.
Karvelas, who is the eighth principal in the school’s 10-year history, said some of the admissions practices were inherited from previous administrations.
She said the ideal score on the Explore test was a 19, which predicted a mid-20s ACT score by junior year.
Karvelas also said she built a “cohort” of students for the new International Baccalaureate program in 2014 by re-inviting some students who had been previously rejected, providing they took an intensive math class over the summer and met other criteria. The IB program ended up admitting 17 students this year.
The school board reacted especially strongly to evidence that the weight of different admissions criteria changed drastically year to year, according to documents they had been given.
Board members observed for incoming students in the class of 2018, test scores made up 58 percent of the admissions score, with the rest made up by grades and the essay. But the documents for the class of 2019 apparently showed the formula changed. Combined test scores made up 90 percent of the points, while the essay was worth just 1 percent of the total score.
Karvelas said the reason for the change was that she had a less-talented pool of students and she changed the criteria.
“We changed the weightings in the middle of the game and didn’t tell anyone?” asked Wagner. “Parents didn’t know the weightings had changed. The weight of test scores completely flipped and families didn’t know that?”
Karvelas reminded the board of her experience at a magnet high school in the Chicago Public Schools. She said the quality of students was inconsistent from year to year and the criteria had to be flexible to capture the best students.
She said the average Explore score for the incoming test takers had dropped from 17 to a 15. She also said grades were inconsistent in the feeder schools, and that grade inflation might be a problem. Karvelas said she had to adjust the weight of the test scores to offer admission to around 200 students.
“You don’t want to decrease the rigor and the academic integrity of the school,” she said.
But board members disagreed and said test-taking was not necessarily a good predictor of student success. Grades should be a higher percentage of the mix, they recommended.
Admission letters are sent out in February, March and even April, PMSA Assistant Principal Bill Breisch and Karvelas told the board.
The board previously complained that late admissions decisions meant parents could lose non-refundable private school deposits. The board told administrators they needed to get in line with the schedules at private high schools.
Board members agreed to come back with recommendations for improvements in the process.
“We must show transparency for the community,” said board President Theresa Kelly.
Test scores on the way up
Karvelas has focused on test scores of PMSA students during her three years at the school.
When she arrived 2013, scores on the Prairie State Achievement Exam — given annually to all high school juniors in the state — had dropped in math by 8 percent, from 77 percent to 69 percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards.
In science, scores had fallen 15 percent from 75 percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards to 60 percent.
Scores rebounded in 2014, and last year Karvelas told the board its PSAE scores were the highest in the school’s history. PMSA teachers both this year and last received a $1,500 bonus tied to test scores.
No transfers allowed
After listening to principals from Proviso East and Proviso West, the board decided to maintain the no-transfer policy for PMSA. Students will only be admitted after eighth grade. Proviso West Principal Oscar Hawthorne said PMSA had pulled eighth-graders out of his new engineering program.
“As Dr. Karvelas needed to fill seats, it impacted our Project Lead the Way program,” he said. “Half of those students went to PMSA.”
Proviso East Principal Patrick Hardy said he was worried PMSA would skim off honors students in the upper grades that the school worked so hard to improve.
The eight-period day at PMSA, compared to seven-periods at West and East, the more rigorous grading scale and the “physics first” science curriculum were also mentioned as reasons not to allow transfers, at least for now.
Board members said the emphasis over the long run should be to improve Proviso East and West.