New Grades Coming For Illinois Schools: ‘Exemplary’ To ‘Lowest Performing’

Mather high school hallway
Bill Healy/WBEZ
Mather high school hallway
Bill Healy/WBEZ

New Grades Coming For Illinois Schools: ‘Exemplary’ To ‘Lowest Performing’

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Every school in Illinois is receiving one of four performance ratings from the state this month — “exemplary,” “commendable,” “underperforming,’” or “lowest performing” — as part of Illinois’ first set of school report cards issued under a new federal education law.

The 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act replaces the No Child Left Behind Act and gives states much more flexibility in determining how to hold its schools accountable.

In Illinois, that is shaping up to mean a sharp turn away from a punitive approach that has dominated school reform efforts for the prior 15 years. State officials say that even a designation of “lowest performing” will no longer mean schools face the threats of closure or other dramatic consequences.

Instead, they’ll be showered with supports to help them improve. A new process “helps the lowest-performing schools improve through self-inquiry and partnerships,” the state’s website promises.

“We’re very excited to roll out the new Illinois report card,” said Ralph Grimm, acting chief education officer at the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). Grimm said the new report cards contain “many new features that are designed to tell a more complete story about each school district and each school in our communities.”

“The Illinois State Board of Education is interested in highlighting the abundance of talent that is found in our schools, even in our lowest performing schools,” Grimm said.

In addition to giving every school a performance rating, the report cards also will show how much money each school district needs to adequately educate students, according to the state’s new evidence-based funding formula.

“We’re trying to foster that deeper understanding of the relationship between financial investments and academic outcomes,” said ISBE spokeswoman Jackie Matthews. The state says more than 80 percent of districts have less than what they need.

The report cards will be released to the public at the end of this month. An online presentation will allow users to see more data and compare schools.

Grading Schools

ISBE officials say the new labels describe how well each of Illinois’ schools is meeting the needs of all its students. For elementary schools, more than half the grade comes from “growth.” That’s a state-generated calculation that looks at how well individual students at each school progressed from year to year on the PARCC standardized exam compared to students at other schools in the state.

Officials say growth ratings are important because they’re not as correlated to student and school socioeconomics. Achievement scores, on the other hand, show a strong correlation with socioeconomics, with high-poverty schools consistently posting lower scores and affluent schools scoring far above them.

“Every student can and does grow,” said Rae Clementz, director of assessment and accountability with the State Board of Education. “The factor that makes the difference is the quality of the education they’re receiving in their school.”

Schools also are judged on how well various student groups — for instance, low-income students, students learning English, or African-American students — perform. Overall, 75 percent of a school’s score is based on academic factors. One quarter is based on “other indicators of school quality and success,” like chronic absenteeism.

Some of the factors that eventually will be worked into a school’s designation are not fully developed yet. The state is still working on a way to measure growth at the high school level, for instance.

The state describes its new school designations as follows:

Exemplary - The highest performing 10 percent of schools statewide.

Commendable - Schools that are overall performing well, but are not in the top 10 percent.

Underperforming - One or more student groups needs additional attention to perform at expected levels.

Lowest Performing - The lowest performing 5 percent of schools statewide.

The five percent of schools deemed “lowest performing” will get extra federal funds and will work with the state and an outside partner of their choosing to improve.

“Schools create a work plan for improvement, then implement and monitor that plan using all the … resources and supports,” said Allison Sherman, executive director of IL-EMPOWER, the state’s process set up specifically to help struggling schools.

Under the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools deemed in need of improvement faced an escalating list of sanctions, including offering students the right to attend better performing schools, hiring private tutoring companies to offer supplemental instruction, and changing out the school’s leadership or staff.

Chicago’s grades

Chicago Public Schools has given its schools performance ratings for years. What factors go into those ratings has changed frequently, and the ratings are often used in high-stakes decisions including which schools to close. Currently, 57 percent of schools have one of the top two ratings.

It’s unclear how the state’s ratings of Chicago schools will align with the district’s own view of its schools, but discrepancies could create conflicts.

Chicago officials didn’t respond to questions about the state’s new report cards.

A number of schools and districts declined to comment on the state’s new labels. Some said they wanted to share the designations with their school boards and parents first.

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