12/11/2012 04:32 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2013

Is CPS's School Ranking System on the Level?

The mood was somber at Monday night's local school council meeting at Philip Rogers Elementary School in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood. Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had recently downgraded Rogers (my neighborhood school) from a "Level 1" school to a "Level 2" school, and some of my fellow LSC members were struggling to understand why.

First, some background. For the last couple of years, CPS has forsaken nuance in favor of a down-and-dirty school ranking system. Each of CPS's roughly 680 elementary and high schools is currently categorized as being a Level 1, Level 2 or Level 3 school. Level 3 is the district's designation for schools that are "on probation." Level 2 is "a middle rating" and Level 1 is the district's "highest rating."

To hammer home the importance of its "easy as 1-2-3" ranking system, CPS provides parents with a map identifying each of the schools in their neighborhood. The map uses a handy, color-coded system to denote whether one's local schools are Level 1, 2 or 3 facilities.

It certainly won't hurt the value of the homes in your area if you happen to live near Level 1 schools. And if you live near Level 3 schools? Well, those are the ones the district has historically targeted for closings, "turnarounds," "phase-outs," and other "school actions."

So how's the recently-downgraded-to-Level 2 Rogers School doing? You be the judge.

According to CPS's numbers, 87.2 percent of the kids at Rogers met or exceeded state standards on the 2012 ISAT exams. (That number dropped slightly from 88 percent in 2011.) Moreover, 40 percent of the school's 8th grade students -- the kids that Rogers' teachers have had the most time to work with -- exceeded state standards on the ISAT. (That number increased from 37.5 percent in 2011.) The school also has a 96.7 percent attendance rate.

Remember, students at Rogers aren't hand-picked to attend the school based on an entrance exam, and they certainly don't come from well-to-do backgrounds. They're just kids who happen to live in the neighborhood -- 81.4 percent of them come from low-income families, 37.2 percent are classified as being "limited English proficient," and 13.8 percent of them are special education students.

CPS's own "2012 School Progress Report" describes the student growth at Rogers as "above average," the student performance as "above average," and the school culture and climate as "well-organized."

So what gives? How does a school earn -- or, in the case of Rogers, keep -- that Level 1 badge of honor?

Ask the mayor's pal Juan Rangel.

He operates the UNO chain of charter schools, and his UNO-Paz Elementary School earned a Level 1 designation. Rangel pulled that off despite having only 71.2 percent of the kids meeting or exceeding state standards on the ISAT. (The overall district average is 76.4 percent.) UNO-Paz was able to ring the Level 1 bell even though the school had just 13.5 percent of its 8th graders exceeding state standards on the ISAT. (The 2012 district-wide average is 15.8 percent.)

Or maybe mayoral insider Frank Clark knows.

Clark is the former ComEd CEO who is now heading up the mayor's "independent commission" on upcoming school closings. Clark, of course, also happens to have a Chicago charter school, Rowe-Clark Math & Science Academy, named after him. And despite having just 44.1 percent of its students meeting or exceeding state standards on the Prairie State Achievement Exam, Clark's namesake school -- you guessed it -- sports the Level 1 badge, having earned the district's highest rating.

Hang in there, Rogers School. This (administration), too, shall pass.