My (sort of) fake interview with (CPS Selective Enrollment Guru) KATIE ELLIS

I call this a fake interview because I was told to send my questions via email and that Katie Ellis would answer my emailed questions.  The questions and the answers are real and accurate.  I have added additional comments in italics under Katie's answers because I was unable to have a real conversation with her.

For any parents in Chicago with school aged children, that may have been in a coma for the last two months, here is the scoop on the selective enrollment school process in Chicago.  There are nine highly sought after selective enrollment high schools.  The selective enrollment elementary schools is a different and less frightening story.  Here is a quick recap of the process.  There are three criteria for admission.  Admission is based on a 900 point system.

300 points for 7th grade ISAT scores

300 points for grades earned in your 7th grade core subjects

300 points for the admissions test

As you can see, the process really begins in 7th grade.  Your child must get all A's in 7th grade and score in the 99th percentile on the ISATs in order to have a good chance to snag a seat in one of 9 selective enrollment high schools in Chicago.

There have been a lot of changes over the last few years and I had some questions that I wanted answered.  So I requested an interview with Katie Ellis, the Executive Director of Access and Enrollment (formerly The Office of Academic Enhancement).  I was never told that I could not have an interview, I was just told to submit my questions via email and that she would answer them.  Here are my questions and her answers.

1) According to an interview you did with CPSOBSESSED.COM, you stated that some ISAT tests are given in the fall.  Why are students being allowed to take the test in the fall?  These students are given an unfair advantage because the other students take the test in early March.


2) Why are private school students allowed to take the Terra Nova (or other standard test) as well as the ISAT and choose which scores to submit to CPS?  If CPS deems this to be a fair practice, then CPS students should be allowed to retake the ISAT and submit the highest score for SE testing.

If a student is coming from a private school and the school uses a standardized test that we accept, that’s the test score that we use (for a list of acceptable tests see Students coming from a private school need a counselor to fill out a form indicating what their test scores and grades are. If we have a test score from the student’s school, that is the score we use.  Students are not allowed to keep taking different tests and provide us with the highest one.  If a student didn’t take the standardized test offered by the school, we ask for an explanation before we will accept an alternative measure.  Just like students in CPS, there may be valid reasons why they were not present the day the standardized test was administered.  Additionally, some private schools administer tests that may not be nationally normed. Those students can take a standardized test that we accept.

I'm not saying that what she said is not true, but I have reason to believe that CPS is not checking to see which test each private school requires its students to take and comparing it to what is submitted.

3) What is the tiebreaker process with regards to the selective enrollment tests?

As you might imagine, when testing so many students, we have numerous students who achieve the same number of total points. To differentiate between these students, tiebreakers are used.  The tiebreaker includes the core percentile on the entrance exam, and the individual sections of the entrance exam (e.g., reading comprehension, vocabulary, etc.). This allows us to rank the students with identical total points from top to bottom.

The order of the tiebreaker is the following:

Core total


Reading comprehension


Language arts

4) If CPS can give neighborhood students additional points for IB schools, why can’t CPS give additional points to currents CPS students for SEHS/SEES to reward families for their years of human capital investment in CPS?  In either case you are giving preference to one group of tax payers over another.

IB programs are located in neighborhood schools, and were put there in part to serve the neighborhood students. So students who are applying to the IB program from the neighborhood already have the right to attend that school. The extra points give them an extra boost to potentially get into the IB program at their neighborhood school. The SEHS and SEES programs are citywide programs intended to serve all of the students in the city of Chicago. On the other hand, parents who have had their kids in private school might say why don’t you give me extra points for paying into a system that I’ve never used, it’s about time I was able to actually use the services I’ve been paying for all of these years. It is our stance that these are Chicago schools to serve Chicago students. Therefore, they should be accessible to any Chicago resident.

5) You have been quoted as saying that around 9-12% of the SE applications are from private schools.  How many SEHS seats (Jones, Payton, Northside & Whitney Young) were filled with private school students last year and how many seats at these schools were offered to private school students for the upcoming school year?

Last year, at those 4 schools, 253 seats went to private/parochial students.  This information is not yet available for this year.

This year there were approximately 1,115 seats at these four schools, if the same number of seats existed last year, that means that while they represent 9-12% of the applications, they occupy 23% of the seats.  Isn't it sad that this is CPS's test and they administer the test but they can't properly prepare their own students for their test.  

I don't understand why she doesn't know the number of seats that were offered to private school students.  The offer letters were mailed on February 27th.  CPS knows where these children attend school because its listed on their application.

6) Three years ago, CPS allowed 25 students from the worst performing schools to have seats at Jones, Payton, Northside & Whitney Young.  How many of these students are still enrolled at these schools?

This is student specific information that we cannot share.

I find this to be a very weak answer.  I did not request the names of the students, I just want to know if these students were still enrolled at the schools.  I asked for this information because this occurred during the first year of the tier system.  My guess is that when the scores were finalized, CPS realized that the schools were not very diverse.  They decided to offer 25 seats at each of the top four SEHS to the best performing students at the worst performing schools.  These students were not required to take the selective enrollment test.  Each SEHS was given extra money to help these students.  The tier formula was changed the following year to accept less students by rank.

7)The point differences between the highest score and the lowest score for students accepted into the SEHS ranges from 78 to 240 points.  How does CPS justify offering a SEHS seat to a student who scored 240 points lower than the highest scoring student?  Is this fair, even in the name of diversity?

In general, schools are asked to teach students with a range of abilities and strengths and weakness. Many of our Selective programs have both a regular track and an honors track. These schools are some of the best performing schools in the city, and a big part of that is that they have excellent teachers who are capable of teaching students with differentiation.

Lets face it, no one thinks its fair for someone to score 100 points less than you and they get into a school and you don't.  This point spread can be the difference between a straight A student and a straight B student.

In addition, the applicant pool is determining the point spread (in the school that you speak of, the lowest scoring student is actually a tier 4 student). And if you compare the actual means across tiers, there is a lot less spread then comparing the highest scoring student to the lowest scoring student in the school.

She is referring to King College Prep where some of their lowest scores come from tier 4 and they have the lowest scores out of all of the SEHS.  I think CPS needs to re-evaluate what it means to be a SEHS.

8) What is the breakdown of race by tier for each of the SEHS?

Can you please clarify what data you’re looking for? Are you looking for last year’s data? Actual enrolled students? Or this year’s offers (which won’t be complete as there may be more rounds and PD has not yet been run)?

I clarified what data I was looking for in another email and I have yet to receive a response.  I don't believe that I asked a difficult question.  I do believe that she did not want to answer the question.   The answer should have read something like this...... the racial make up for tier 1 at Lane is 500 black, 450 hispanic, 40 white and 10 other or percentages could be given.

9) Why are children in classical and regional gifted centers, given the advantage of taking the academic center admissions test in the comfort of their own school, when other children must take the test at IIT?

All students were required to go to IIT this year, even those in classical and RGCs.

I see they saw the error of their ways and required all of the students to be inconvenienced by going to an unfamiliar place to take the test.  The idea of letting the "gifted" kids take the test at their own school was so wrong!  I'm happy that they corrected this great injustice.

10) What ideas is CPS exploring to make the SE process more timely and efficient?

CPS is looking to move to a single application for high school admissions next year. We hope that this makes it easier for parents to navigate the system.

She did not mention that they are working to make the process more timely.  That's a big issue for students and parents.


There is a similar less grueling process for the selective enrollment elementary schools.  I can't imagine being the parent of a four year old going through a similar process.  There are people who are offering test prep for four year olds.  What's even more crazy is that  parents are paying for test prep for their four year old to get into a selective enrollment elementary school.  I think that CPS should not offer testing for gifted classes before 3rd grade.  There should not be testing for small children, its just too much!  If your child is truly "gifted", a teacher should recommend a gifted school/program.

The selective enrollment process puts too much stress and pressure on students.  If CPS truly cares about the students, this process needs to change.  One of the first things that needs to change is the requirements for the SEHS.  You can apply to a SEHS if you have a stanine 5 on the ISAT.  It is impossible for a student with a stanine 5 on the ISAT to get into a SEHS because their points would be too low.  CPS is giving students false hope by setting the requirements for applying so low.  If they changed the application requirements, they would not have 14,000 students applying to selective enrollment high schools.  There must be a better way to get the accelerated students an education on an accelerated level without all of the pressure and stress.

Here is my idea to change the selective enrollment elementary schools.  If each school had a gifted/accelerated program, then the needs of every student could be met.  Right now, I believe that most teachers, teach to the average student.  The low performing students get extra help and the accelerated student gets to help the low performing student so they are not reaching their full potential.  There are some schools that are good at differentiation, but most schools are not.  By having an gifted/accelerated program, a student who is good in math but not good in reading could take a gifted/accelerated math class and take a regular reading class.

There must be a better way to address the needs of all students in a non-stressful fashion.  Students are the number one priority and CPS needs to look at the selective enrollment process and figure out what is best for the children.

Tune in on Friday to read about where I think parents need to place the blame if their children are overweight! 

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  • Tracy, thanks for sharing. I agree, some seriously lame and inexplicably incomplete answers. We need to keep these conversations in the public eye.

  • In reply to Julie:

    It is funny how CPS is always saying that they value parental input. I would like to know what parents they were talking to when they made the decisions about the selective enrollment process.

  • Ha! You can bet on it: zero.

    This process is insane and cannot possibly exist in any other city in America. I'm at least glad to see that those two want to create a few more selective enrollment schools "because there's demand." I'd like to see a few more plain old mediocre schools, middling places to go where a kid is safe and the curriculum covers the basics.

    We parents--were they EVER to inquire--aren't really asking the moon, we really aren't.

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