State gets permission from the feds to ditch No Child Left Behind rules
In reading, for example, 85 percent of white third- through eighth-grade students statewide will be expected to pass state tests by 2019, compared with about 73 percent for Latinos and 70 percent for black students, an analysis of state and federal records shows.
The concept is part of a fundamental and, according to critics, troubling shift in how public schools and students will be judged after the federal government recently allowed Illinois to abandon unpopular requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
A key NCLB measure long considered unreachable—that 100 percent of students must pass state exams—will be eliminated.
But the complex new approach of different standards for different groups is troubling to civil rights activists, who are not convinced that school districts will be held accountable for failing to educate minority students, and to some local educators, who say the lowered expectations will send a negative message to students.
“You’re potentially sending a message that it’s OK for some kids to not do as well,” said Timothy Truesdale, assistant superintendent in Cicero’s Morton High School District 201, where almost all students are Latino and low-income, and test scores have been dismal for years.
“We want our students to be proficient,” Truesdale said.
In a recent college-level calculus class at Morton East, Latino students in white and khaki uniforms were poring over equations to prepare for their Advanced Placement exam this month—the culmination of one of the toughest math courses any high school can offer.
“You push them, and they respond,” math teacher Barbara Kane said of her students. In the past several years, Morton East has been pushing hundreds more students into AP, hoping to challenge kids and boost achievement.
State officials say they are recognizing that student groups are starting out at different levels, and that low performers will be pushed to do more to catch up to higher-achieving peers.
They also stressed that different passing targets for groups should not be confused with what students have to score individually to pass a state exam. All children need the same score to pass.
“A key point here is that we are setting more aggressive targets for underperforming groups that will reduce achievement gaps,” said State School Superintendent Chris Koch. “It is certainly better than the prior model of everybody is proficient by a particular year, which clearly hasn’t worked.”
Under the new rating system, which will be rolled out in 2014-15, the state also is creating a color-coded system available on the state’s “report card” website that will tell parents at a glance how well schools are doing in a variety of categories. Green is good, and yellow is OK. Red warrants immediate attention.
Scores on state exam day will no longer define a school. Instead, schools will be rated on a variety of measures, including graduation rates, minority performance, state exam scores and progress in improving scores. Each major category will earn points from zero to 100 and, ultimately, a color designed to signal strengths and weaknesses.
The U.S. Department of Education approved the state’s overhaul last month after granting Illinois a waiver from key provisions of NCLB, a federal effort to transform schools and boost achievement for students of all backgrounds.
Class of 2014 graduates spent their entire school careers under NCLB, an era of expanded state testing that demanded an increasing percentage of students of all races and backgrounds pass annual state exams. For this spring’s testing, 100 percent of students must pass.
Schools are labeled failures when too many students flunk, and by 2013, almost 85 percent of Illinois schools had received failing labels, including many of the state’s premier high schools.
‘A Learning Process’
To be clear, NCLB remains the law of the land, but Congress has been unable to agree on revamping it, so the Obama administration in 2012 began giving states permission to get around key provisions. Illinois was one of the last states to receive such permission, mostly because it was sparring with federal officials over a new teacher evaluation system.
Among the more controversial elements of Illinois’ new plan:
• Emphasis will be placed on “growth,” meaning getting children to steadily improve, even if they don’t always pass state exams. That concept also has been criticized, with a civil rights and education coalition saying student achievement and graduation rates are paramount. While growth is important, the group says, “Actual … proficiency is critical.”
• Districts no longer will be required to offer special tutoring to students in repeatedly failing schools—a hallmark of NCLB. Nor will students be able to transfer to better schools as they can now. Students who have already transferred can stay put. Federal officials say that, for a variety of reasons, few students have switched schools during the NCLB years.
• The new rating system involves different achievement goals for each of nearly 4,000 schools as well as groups of students within those schools, plus a dizzying array of data points in several categories.
It likely will be more difficult for parents to navigate the data and to make easy comparisons to other schools, experts say.
“The process to getting to a good system is going to be a learning process,” said Ben Boer, policy director at Advance Illinois, an education reform group.
While most schools received failing labels under NCLB, the new system will move away from labeling. It plans to target only 15 percent of struggling schools that get federal money for low-income students. That includes 147 so-called priority schools that have the lowest performance in the state and will get intense state intervention, including many in Chicago Public Schools.
Among that group, the state also will target “focus” schools, which have significant gaps in achievement between student groups, or other challenges, and will get state help to improve.
Critics express concern that struggling schools that miss achievement targets—but don’t make it on the priority and focus lists—will not be identified or sanctioned, as they could be under NCLB.
Nevertheless, Koch said the state will take seriously all schools that miss their targets and those schools will not be “immune to getting governmental intervention from the state.”
The state also will create “reward” schools, which have made progress, such as closing gaps in achievement between student groups.
Naperville’s Scott Elementary School was labeled a reward school in state data provided earlier to the federal government. The most recent test scores, however, still show large gaps in performance between black and white students, as well as between low-income and more affluent children.
Principal Nick Micensky said diversity is “one of the best things about our school,” and that staff work in a variety of ways to help students, including after-school programs for children who need extra instruction. Teachers also get training in areas such as how poverty affects children and how to be responsive to students from all cultural backgrounds.
Asked about the move to set different performance targets for different groups, he said, “That’s a pretty tough subject.”
Under the new system, the goal over a six-year period is to reduce by one half the percentage of students and groups who fail reading and math exams.
Each year, groups will have goals for improving that push them toward their 2019 target. Because groups start at different places, their final targets will be different too. For example, state data provided to the federal government shows the percent of students passing exams in 2019 would range from about 52 to 92 percent, depending on test, grade and student group.
For all students combined, the passing rate would be about 76 to 79 percent in 2019—lower than the now-infamous 100 percent requirement.
In addition to minorities, the groups being assessed include boys and girls, special education students and children still learning English. Only Asian students, as a whole, did better on exams than white students, according to 2013 state data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, so whites will have lower targets than Asians for passing state exams.
Scott Sargrad, a deputy assistant secretary at the Education Department, said after the first six years, states will likely reassess the targets for each group, with an aim toward getting all students to progress and reach proficiency.
“That is the right aspirational goal,” Sargrad said.
Still, different goals for different groups have sparked controversy in some states such as Virginia, where the state board revised its targets after complaints by black lawmakers and the state NAACP, said a Virginia education spokesman. Now, students can start out with different targets, but by the sixth year, they must meet the same goal, with limited exceptions.
Illinois plans to report results for each group of students every year. But in another twist, schools won’t actually be judged on the performance of each individual group. Instead, the state plans to lump together students from different groups in its analysis.
For example, schools will be held accountable for reducing gaps in achievement between a group that combines black, Latino and Native American students and a group of white, Asian, Hawaiian Pacific Islander and multiracial students.
Creation of these “supergroups” also has been criticized. A report by the Campaign for High School Equity, a coalition of civil rights and education advocacy groups, said supergroups mask the performance of individual groups, raising concerns some struggling children may no longer get the help they need.
Under the NCLB waivers, “States can return to an era of less accountability, where the performance of underserved students does not trigger intervention,” the group said in an August report. “This eliminates one of the most important civil rights victories in education law, and returns us to a time where states may not be responsive to the needs of underserved students.”
The Education Department in an April 18 letter cautioned it will closely monitor Illinois’ new system.
State Board of Education spokeswoman Mary Fergus said the state plans to revisit the issue to determine whether combined subgroups are “the best option.”
Across the country, the verdict is still out on the NCLB waivers.
“I think a lot of people are asking, ‘Are waivers creating a better accountability system?'” said Anne Hyslop, an analyst at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. The answer is, “We don’t know yet,” she said.
She recently wrote: “There may be agreement that NCLB is broken, but there is not yet agreement that waivers are working.”
Elgin-based School District U-46 Superintendent Jose Torres, who heads a sprawling system where minority students make up almost 70 percent of the enrollment, hasn’t looked closely at the numbers but believes the concept of different targets for different students makes sense.
“When you get beyond the rhetoric, our students are not achieving at the same level as our white counterparts,” Torres said. “To say that they will achieve at the same level without dramatically doing something different is politically correct but it doesn’t make it so.”