Despite objections about its continued reliance on standardized tests to judge schools, the Illinois State Board of Education on Wednesday unanimously approved a new plan for rating and supporting schools to replace the more punitive No Child Left Behind law.
The vote came after more than a year of planning, 94 public meetings and three previous drafts. Shortly before the vote, State Schools Supt. Tony Smith shared what he understood to be his marching orders.
“People said it has to not be punitive, it has to help, it has to help us learn how to do this work better and it has to be fair,” Smith told state Board of Education members in Springfield on Wednesday.
The new blueprint is required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was signed into law by then-President Barack Obama in December 2015. The law, known as ESSA, replaced the unpopular No Child Left Behind Act, which has been phased out over the last several years in Illinois and many states after receiving federal waivers from some of the law's most onerous requirements. ESSA shifts significant power to states and school districts to determine how to measure and improve school performance.
Illinois’ plan will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education by April 3 for review. All states are expected to begin phasing in their new accountability systems this fall. Congress recently appealed guidelines for the law written by the Obama Administration but Illinois officials say their plan confirms to the law itself, which was not repealed.
The new Illinois plan breaks from the 15-year-old No Child Left Behind law most significantly in two ways: how schools are graded by the state and how they’re treated if they fall short. Under the latter, the state intends to create a system of support for struggling schools called IL-Empower where pre-approved vendors will be called in to help. This is different than under the No Child law, which laid out a set of escalating sanctions for schools when they performed poorly.
The grading system for Illinois schools generated the most controversy.
ESSA requires each state to use multiple measures to evaluate schools, though annual standardized testing is still required in grades three through eight and once in high school.
Under Illinois’ plan, 75 percent of each school’s evaluation will be based on academic measures -- test results and high school graduation rates. The other 25 percent will be based on “school quality indicators,” which include a school climate survey, chronic absenteeism, a fine arts indicator and the percentage of ninth graders on track to graduate.
Educators pushed hard for the state to weigh student progress on exams -- known as growth -- more heavily than absolute test scores, or proficiency. They prevailed. Under the state’s proposed rating system, growth will be weighted more than two times as much as proficiency.
But many education groups wanted the other measures -- like absenteeism rates and school climate -- to count for more than 25 percent of a school’s total rating. Many had pushed for a 60 to 40 percent or a 51 to 49 percent split, with the first figure representing the mostly test-based or academic indicators.
“We believe the overall weighting between academic and student success indicators should be closer to the percentages that a vast majority of stakeholders suggested,” said Susan Hilton of the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance, a group that represents school administrators and school boards. Her alliance is “highly supportive of many aspects of the plan,” but her group recommend a 60 to 40 split.
Leaders from the state’s unions put it in even stronger terms.
“We have 15 years of evidence that test-based accountability has not worked and has led to a range of negative consequences,” said Kurt Hilgendorf of the Chicago Teachers Union.
In response, Smith said some groups wanted a 90-10 split and others wanted to 51-49 so the state settled on a split that sought to honor a range of feedback.
Many people at the State Board of Education meeting also criticized the state for failing to immediately count fine arts in its rating system. The state included “a fine arts indicator” but gave it no weight. It is marked with a “0” percent. The state plans to assign it a weight in the 2021-22 school.
“For some children, arts are their lifeline to learning,” Jonathan VanderBrug of the Arts Alliance Illinois said. “That is what keeps them in school. That is so much more than a ‘zero.’ ”
Smith said the state included the arts indicator now to signal its value, but it isn’t factoring it into a school’s rating yet to give the state time to determine how best to craft that measure.
Governor Bruce Rauner heralded passage of Illinois’ ESSA plan.
“This is an historic day for Illinois schools,” Rauner said in a statement. “Our state implementation plan will guarantee that parents across Illinois can clearly see whether local schools are meeting the needs of their children. Through a clear and concise ratings system based primarily on student growth, teachers and administrators will understand where they’re succeeding and what needs improvement. At the same time, the plan’s early childhood, arts, and other indicators will ensure that Illinois continues innovating to support the whole child.”