A new way of rating and supporting schools is up for a vote by the Illinois State Board of Education on Wednesday, and the decision could mark a shift in the way the state will evaluate schools in the years to come.
The new blueprint is required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2015. It replaced the unpopular No Child Left Behind Act and shifts significant power to states and school districts to determine how to measure and improve school performance.
If approved by the State Board of Education at its monthly meeting in Springfield on Wednesday, the plan will be submitted to the federal government by April 3 for review. States are expected to begin phasing in their new accountability systems this fall.
Below are five things the public needs to know about Illinois’ ESSA Plan:
New law, same exams
Many parts of Illinois’ new schools plan will feel familiar.
ESSA requires states to test all students annually in third through eighth grades in both reading and math. Illinois plans to keep the controversial PARCC tests in place for elementary school kids. Those exams were first administered in 2015 and are meant to encourage critical thinking skills, but some parents and teachers say the tests are too long and time-consuming and don’t deliver what was promised.
High schoolers will take the SAT college entrance exam. As under the No Child Left Behind law, scores will be reported publicly for schools and also broken down for groups of students, such as special education or Latino students.
Advocates believe the new accountability system will tell the public how well the state’s schools are doing, said Ben Boer, deputy director at the statewide education advocacy group Advance Illinois.
“It allows us to assess whether schools are able to support all of our students, and that includes looking at things like achievement gaps,” Boer said. “There’s a focus on that in the plan — making sure that English-language learner students, low-income students, African American students and others — that schools are supporting them in ways that they should. Having that information is incredibly important to equity.”
The plan sets out some long-term goals. By 2032 the state expects:
- At least 90 percent of 3rd graders reading at grade level
- At least 90 percent of 5th graders meeting expectations in math
- At least 90 percent of high schoolers graduating ready for college or a career
It’s all about growth
While the tests are the same, the state will no longer narrowly focus on proficiency levels, or how high students score. Instead, it will emphasize student progress on exams over time — known as “growth” in education lingo. Under the state’s proposed rating system, growth will be weighted more than two times as much as proficiency.
“We’re going to look at student growth as the primary metric by which we see whether students are improving,” said Beth Purvis, Illinois Education Secretary and the governor’s point person on education. “So we should be celebrating kids who are moving from the 5th percentile to the 15th percentile — even more than we are kids moving from the 85th to the 90th. And I think our plan, because it focuses on growth, will do that.”
Not just tests
More factors will go into judging school success under the new plan. Illinois will consider chronic truancy rates when it evaluates schools, for example. It will also give schools credit for keeping ninth graders on track to graduate and will take into account parent and teacher feedback from the “5 Essentials” Survey, a survey of school culture and climate developed by the University of Chicago.
But the Illinois Federation of Teachers said school ratings are still too reliant on standardized tests.
“Fifteen years of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) have demonstrated what does not work: specifically, focusing on accountability as the driver to improve schools,” the IFT, one of two major teachers unions in the state, wrote in comments to an earlier draft of the state’s plan. “We have long argued against the thinking that public schools can address the myriad challenges their students bring to school with them without sufficient funding.”
The IFT, which represents 100,000 teachers in Chicago and other parts of Illinois, is expected to comment at the board meeting Wednesday.
New grading system
The state will be revamping report cards it issues to the public. Each of the state’s 4,000 schools will be given one of four designations.
Exemplary: a school that has no under-performing subgroups of students, a graduation rate higher than 67 percent, and whose performance is in the top 10 percent of schools statewide.
Commendable: a school that has no under-performing subgroups of students, a graduation rate higher than 67 percent, but whose performance is not in the top 10 percent of schools statewide.
Under-performing: a school in which one or more subgroups of students is under-performing students in the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I (high-poverty) schools.
Lowest performing: a school that is in the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I (high-poverty) schools in Illinois. For high schools, those with a graduation rate under 67 percent.
A ‘system of support’
No Child Left Behind mandated a prescriptive set of steps for schools if they didn’t measure up. Under Illinois’ new plan, the state will create a system of support called IL-Empower. A group of pre-approved vendors will work with schools to improve. School districts themselves will be able to sign up as vendors, offering to help other school districts.
The state’s other major teachers union, the Illinois Education Association, questions this aspect of Illinois’ plan, saying the state should invest in capacity in schools rather than funding external vendors.
“We believe that money should be directed to classrooms and students rather than vendors,” the union, which represents 130,000 education employees outside Chicago, wrote in comments it plans to deliver to the board Wednesday.