Change CPS Test Prep

In Chicago, inequality in college admissions starts before high school.

By Sam Litwinski

High school students who attend the five nationally ranked Chicago public magnet high schools—Walter Payton, Northside, Jones, Whitney Young, and Lane—have a far higher chance of being admitted to the University of Chicago than students from other Chicago Public Schools (CPS). For example, at Lane Tech, out of the 1104 students in the Class of 2021, 262 revealed where they are going to college through public Instagram accounts, and four out of those 262 are attending UChicago. Given that there are only 390 students from the entire Midwest in UChicago’s Class of 2025 and there are 162 CPS high schools, it is clear most CPS schools are not sending students to UChicago at anywhere near Lane’s rate. One would hope, then, that each CPS student has an equal chance to get into a magnet high school. However, because the admissions tests include material that is not normally taught in middle school—and access to private test prep is expensive—richer students possess a significant edge over their poorer counterparts. Inequalities in the process for high school admissions lead directly to unequal outcomes in admissions to UChicago and other top colleges. The administration of UChicago should therefore consider asking CPS schools to offer test prep to all their students, as well as to reverse their obtuse stance on test prep being unhelpful.

The administration of UChicago has a longstanding relationship with CPS, including providing dedicated admissions counselors (for both selective and nonselective schools) and offering merit-based scholarships to students from the area. Although UChicago does not disclose where their students went to high school, I was able to find information using social media pages (such as ltclassof21 on Instagram) created by students at Chicago’s magnet schools. The five aforementioned magnet schools each sent at least two to four graduates to the University of Chicago in the only years for which I could find data: Northside in 2019; Lane, Payton, and Jones in 2021, and Whitney in 2022. The actual numbers are probably higher because these social media pages are self-reporting and have information for less than half of each graduating class.

Last year, although 26,000 Chicago eighth graders applied to CPS selective enrollment high schools, fewer than one-fifth received a spot. When I applied to my current school—Walter Payton, the top-ranked high school in Illinois—three years ago, only one out of 38 applicants were accepted. In selecting students for these schools, CPS uses a composite score (on a 900 scale) made up of each student’s grades and standardized test scores. Students with the highest scores are matched with the school they rank highest. When I applied, one-third of my score was based on my seventh-grade classroom grades, while the rest was based on my scores on two standardized tests: the NWEA MAP test and the CPS high school entrance exam. (This year, CPS is using one standardized test rather than two.)

Theoretically, CPS tries to level the playing field caused by inequalities in students’ backgrounds with what is called the “tier system.” CPS divides the city into four different socio-economic tiers based on geography, income, and educational quality. Tier Four is the wealthiest, followed by Tiers Three and Two, and Tier One has the lowest income levels. Seventeen point five percent of the spots are reserved for each tier, so the tier system accounts for 70 percent of the total spaces.

But the remaining 30 percent of spots at these schools are reserved for students with the highest overall scores, regardless of what tier they live in. That means, hypothetically, almost half the students at any school could come from Tier Four: the 17.5 percent reserved for that tier, plus the 30 percent of overall top scorers. And as little as 17.5 percent could come from Tier One.

It’s not just students’ income and background that makes the playing field uneven. The tests themselves—and the private test-prep system—also contribute to the unequal outcomes. The tests include material that is usually not covered in middle school, but which can be learned through private test prep. Since the MAP test is adaptive, a student will “level up” to harder questions only if they successfully answer the easier ones. To get a top score, you need to correctly answer the questions that test this advanced material.

I attended a National Blue Ribbon middle school—this distinction is awarded to the state’s highest performing schools as measured by standardized test scores. However, when I took the CPS entrance tests, they included questions that went beyond what I had been taught there. For example, on the math portion of the MAP test, topics included imaginary numbers and geometric formulas, which are alien to many 13-year-olds. Unless the student had previously encountered those types of problems and memorized the relevant formulas, they were unlikely to achieve a score high enough for admission into a magnet school and, by extension, colleges like UChicago.

One way around this knowledge gap is accessing a tutor through private companies, which often charge exorbitant fees. At Test Prep Chicago, which many of my middle school friends used, five hours of tutoring will set you back $475. If you live in the Gold Coast, where the median household income is upwards of $150,000, this is nominal. However, if you live in West Garfield Park, where the median household income is just under $24,000, you will likely think twice before shelling out that kind of money. CPS actually discourages students from taking test prep classes, even though it is almost impossible to get a top score without them. I took test prep classes and found them very helpful, especially on the math portion, as did many of my friends.

The playing field will be unequal as long as test prep is only accessible to wealthier students. But it doesn’t have to be this way. CPS should take steps towards ensuring that all their students are adequately prepared for these tests. They could, for example, partner with a test prep company like Academic Approach to offer free prep classes for the selective enrollment exam at every public elementary school in Chicago. Or they could include better test prep in the seventh- and eighth-grade core curriculum, ensuring that students will encounter these concepts in the classroom before seeing them on test day. Given UChicago’s relationship with CPS magnet high schools, the University administration should encourage these changes. Taking these steps will help every child in the city achieve their highest potential score on the entrance tests, and, as a result, give them a fair shot at eventually ending up at a leading institution like the University of Chicago.


Sam Litwinski is a junior at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School.

One of the schools, Northside, does not appear to have a social media page for college admissions, but its website has information from 2019.