Behind the Scenes, Illinois Ed Officials Tinkering With School Ratings

Although a growing number of Illinois students are failing their achievement exams, don't look for school grades to reflect this dismal reality. That's because, behind the scenes, lawmakers are tinkering with the formula used to assess school quality to deemphasize the impact of student exam performance and help schools look better than they are.

These machinations appear to be at odds with officials' insistence on more rigorous curriculum and tougher tests, even though implementing them could lead to higher failure rates denying schools federal funding. Currently, the schools must ensure that 90% of their students pass the state reading and math exams in order to avoid sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act.

But unknown to many local officials, the Illinois State Board of Education revamped the complicated calculations used to determine whether schools pass or fail. This helped some grade schools and high schools meet standards and avoid sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, when they otherwise would have failed.

"That was really a gift," said Patrick Nolten, head of research and assessment in Indian Prairie School District 204, which serves parts of Naperville and Aurora. "The intention and purpose is to really allow schools and districts to show there has been positive change." Nolten said he's still reviewing his district's figures, but that it is "highly likely" some schools met the federal standard because of the changes.

According to Diane Rado of The Chicago Tribune, the biggest change is allowing schools to meet federal standards based on how much of an improvement in passage rates they demonstrate from year to year rather than simply on what percentage of their students passed the exams. For example, in order to meet the annual progress metrics in 2013, 92.5% of students needed to get a passing mark on the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests. This is no longer the case.

State board spokeswoman Mary Fergus said the revamped formula "allows us to acknowledge growth (improvement in test scores) and move away from the punitive nature and unrealistic benchmarks of NCLB."

The state has yet to make public the number of schools that passed federal standards for 2013, or how many met the benchmarks because the pass-fail standards were revised.
Fergus did say that some of Illinois' top high schools, deemed among the best in the country, will benefit from the revamped formula, but that "the majority of Illinois districts" did not meet federal standards for 2013.

Local districts have received information from the state about their status, and some have already released information to their boards at public meetings.

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