Why More Illinois Schools Scored Top State Ratings | WBEZ
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More Illinois Schools Score Top State Ratings — A Closer Look Shows Why

Even as proficiency on standardized tests largely flat lined, more Illinois schools are earning satisfactory marks on the state’s fledgling accountability system.

That’s because the state changed how it evaluates schools. A higher state rating doesn’t necessarily signal a school’s improved teaching and learning.

The latest round of school ratings appears on the Illinois Report Card, released Wednesday. The annual report card offers school-level data about everything from test scores to suspensions to per-student spending — a new element this year.

This year, fewer schools in Chicago and statewide ended up in the bottom groups.

In all, of the state’s more than 3,700 schools, 85% landed in the top two of four tiers. Only 15% statewide were labeled underperforming or lowest performing, the bottom two tiers, compared with 20% last year. (In both years, 5% were flagged as lowest performers, a category that is fixed at that percentage by the federal government.)

Sixteen fewer Chicago schools landed in the lowest performing category this year, 78 compared with 94 in the first year of the ratings. High schools disproportionately end up in this category because a graduation rate at or below 67% automatically drops a school down the rungs.

To look up ratings for Chicago schools, use our searchable database below.

The state said more schools in Illinois — and, likewise, in Chicago — earned the second-highest rating in part because it changed the way it calculates categories of students with special needs. This year, as directed by the federal government, it expanded that group to include students who receive support at school for health or behavioral issues. Adding those students, who have what’s known as 504 plans, to the general calculation boosted overall school scores.

Schools statewide keep a close eye on their ratings, since landing on the bottom two rungs can trigger state aid and intervention. The rating system uses four labels: exemplary, commendable, underperforming, and lowest performing.

No school wants to be labeled underperforming or lowest performing, said Mark Klaisner, the president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents.

“If I’m a principal or superintendent, I’m not thrilled about having to tell my story if my schools are designated as underperforming or lowest performing,” said Klaisner. “But I am interested in what I can do with the dollars.”

States that land in the lowest categories qualify for a chunk of a $45 million pool of federal school improvement funds. Schools in the lowest performing category get a base amount of $100,000 annually to spend on drafting and executing improvement plans. Schools in the underperforming category get at least $15,000 per year. In both cases, schools get guidance and must devise plans to improve.

The state’s ratings reflect schools’ improvement. They differ from Chicago Public Schools ratings of a 1-plus, 1, and so on, used to help parents in choosing schools The city has delayed releasing its latest round of ratings and other data, such as 2019-20 enrollment, during the teachers strike.

Several metrics — from test scores to chronic absenteeism — factor into the state ratings, but not everything is equally weighted.

For elementary and middle schools, the most crucial metric is growth on the annual standardized Illinois Assessment of Readiness exam. Also factored in were chronic absenteeism rates and the number of English learners who demonstrated proficiency.

For high schools, the most heavily weighted metric was the graduation rate, which was half a school’s score.

The state’s four-year-graduation rate last spring 2019 was 85.9%, only a slight uptick from the previous year’s rate of 85.4%.

Allison Sherman, the director of IL-Empower, which is the state’s accountability system, said that those schools that rose above the lowest two categories still remain on the state’s radar. The state places schools on four-year improvement plans, and they stay there even if they improve.

“Some schools this year came up in their designation, but we will continue to fund them,” Sherman said. “Building systems of continuous school improvement means there needs to be continuous support from the state. That’s really important.”

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to annually rate schools and to base those ratings, in part, on performance of students in particular categories such as racial groups and children with special needs.

But states have leeway in what metrics to factor in their ratings and how to design their accountability systems.

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This story was produced in collaboration with Chalkbeat Chicago, a nonprofit news organization covering public education.

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