4 Of 5 Illinois Public Schools In Top Tiers Despite Low Test Scores | WBEZ
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4 Out Of 5 Illinois Public Schools In Top Tiers Despite State’s Low Test Score Averages

A remarkable 80 percent of public schools in Illinois were classified as either “exemplary “or “commendable” by the state on Wednesday, conjuring images of Lake Wobegon, the fictional Minnesota town where “all the children are above average.”

It’s the first time the Illinois State Board of Education has rated individual public schools, which is a requirement under the country’s current education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. The overwhelmingly positive school designations come even as 69 percent of Illinois elementary school students tested below proficiency in math; 63 percent missed in reading.  

The state’s new accountability system — featuring changes to how schools are judged and a less punitive approach to those deemed underperforming — shows a shift in thinking about school quality and even the purpose of an accountability system.

Just a few years ago, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, 85 percent of Illinois schools failed to meet expectations.

But under the state’s new designations, the top 10 percent of schools are considered “exemplary” and another 70 percent are “commendable.” Fifteen percent — 550 schools —  are “underperforming,” and the bottom 5 percent — 195 schools — are labeled “lowest performing.” Each school’s designation is available at www.illinoisreportcard.com.

William Hatch School in west suburban Oak Park. (Linda Lutton/WBEZ)

The shift in the proportion of schools deemed successful comes largely because the state has changed how it defines school success. It gave added weight to factors like attendance, high school graduation rates, and above all, academic “growth,” or how much students improve from one year to the next on state standardized tests.

“Historically, we had a system based on whether students were proficient or not,” said State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith. “And that really did not fully represent the work of families and educators and students.”

Smith says the state will now “be able to see growth trends and learn from places where students are really making significant progress and use that to help other places where other students might not be making that same kind of progress.”

Elliott Ramos/WBEZ

Along with the designations, the state is also releasing a trove of data, including:

  • Scores from standardized tests taken last spring. Results from the PARCC exam — which tests for proficiency in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 — showed 36.9 percent of students were meeting standards in English language arts and 31.3 percent meeting standards in math. Those rates have varied little over the past three years. SAT scores show 36.9 percent of high school students met proficiency standards in English; 34.4 percent met in math, a slight drop in both subjects from last year.
  • College enrollment. The state is touting the highest percentage of students enrolling in college since Illinois began reporting the metric in 2014; 74.8 percent of high school graduates in the state enrolled in two- or four-year colleges within 12 months of graduation.
  • Advanced Placement results. A record number of Illinois high school students took and passed Advanced Placement exams last school year. Some 40,696 took at least one of the nationally scored exams; 30,560 passed an exam. Both figures are up slightly from the previous year.

Also, for the first time, school report cards include data showing how close school districts are to funding “adequacy,” as defined by the state’s historic overhaul to the school funding formula in 2017.  

“We have considerable inequity in Illinois,” Smith said. He said some school districts have less than half the funding needed to provide their students with an adequate education, while others have nearly three times what they need. “So that’s certainly not Lake Wobegon,” said Smith.

The bottom 20 percent  

School officials have said one motivation to embrace test score growth in their school rating system rather than proficiency — or how well students score  — is that growth is less tied to socio-economic status.

But the 195 schools labeled “lowest performing” are for the most part located in urban neighborhoods marked by concentrated poverty. All but 25 schools have a student body that’s at least 60 percent low-income. Sixty-four percent are majority black schools. Nearly half are in Chicago.  

Schools labeled “underperforming” are scattered throughout the state, including in more affluent communities. In those schools, at least one student group  — low-income, special education, or white students, for example — performs at or below the performance level of the 5 percent of schools in the state deemed “lowest performing.”

In west suburban Oak Park, for instance, the community’s two middle schools are both designated “underperforming.” Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School’s black students, low-income students, and special education students all performed in the lowest 5 percent of schools in the state.

Adrienne Guldin lives across the street from Brooks and says her children will be at the middle school in a few years.

“Part of the reason that we want to be in Oak Park with the schools is because we want our kids to have a diverse education,” said Guldin, who is white. “So if the school is not helping all of the kids it needs to help, then that’s a big concern.”

Everything to help, nothing to hinder

For more than a decade under the No Child Left Behind law, low-performing schools faced a series of sanctions, including letting students transfer or converting a school into a charter school, if they didn’t meet testing targets. Now, in another sea change, the state says schools named “lowest performing” or “underperforming” will get extra money and support. They’ll be able to work with outside partners, including schools that are performing well.

“It really is the intent … to identify kids that need extra supports — to put a spotlight on that so we know exactly where we need to do more work, and that no underperforming students are left behind or fall under the radar any longer,” said Allison Sherman, executive director of IL-Empower, the state effort set up to assist schools designated underperforming and lowest performing.

In north suburban Evanston School District 65, Superintendent Paul Goren calls this “a new day.”  

“We’re moving from a more punitive system — ‘Here are accountability standards, you didn’t achieve them, you will be penalized’ — to more of a way to identify schools that might be struggling, and identify segments of schools where the struggle might be — and then to provide help and assistance.

Goren’s district is home to six schools labeled “exemplary” and six labeled “commendable.” But the district also has three schools labeled “underperforming.” Goren said the schools fell short on their education of special education students.  

“In the past, under what was a more punitive policy, you were designated, and then you were basically told what to do, and you had to do it the state’s way. Here, we’re given the opportunity to work with providers who can actually help us craft a plan and help us — if we do have blind spots — to make some improvements.”

Some school leaders whose schools were labeled “underperforming” are pushing back against that label, saying their entire school doesn’t deserve the label. They argue it hurts more than it helps. The state argues schools have to be judged on how they serve all their students.

Check out report cards for all Illinois schools here.

Linda Lutton covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @lindalutton.

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