A record number of Illinois schools escaped federal No Child Left Behindsanctions this school year, largely because of changes in how schools arejudged and alterations that made state achievement exams easier for studentsto pass.
Nearly 82 percent of the state's public schools met the federal goals onthe 2006 state math and reading tests, compared with 74 percent the yearbefore, according to a Tribune analysis of state data.
But 450 of the nearly 3,100 elementary and high schools that met thefederal goals did so because state education officials changed the waystudents' test scores were counted, not because students necessarily didbetter on the tests, according to the state data. Those schools made the gradebecause the state built in a cushion that allows subgroups of students to meeta lower passing threshold than initially required under the law.
When the federal law passed in 2002, educators and politicians predictedthat the number of failing schools would soar as the passing bar inched up andschools began testing more students as required by the law.
But states have made so many adjustments to their testing systems, thenumbers have not risen as quickly as expected. In some states, the number offailing schools actually declined last year. In Illinois, the number hasdeclined every year since the law was instituted.
"There is clearly a race to the bottom going on," said Kevin Carey, apolicy director at Education Sector, a think tank that studied state testingchanges. "When states change rules under No Child Left Behind, it's alwayschanges that will make it easier for schools. One state will come up with an`innovative' way to give schools the statistical benefit of the doubt and thenevery state will follow suit."
About 87 percent of Illinois elementary schools and 72 percent of charterschools met federal goals.
But high schools did not fare as well. About 35 percent of them missed themark, including powerhouses Hinsdale Central and Libertyville High School. Theschools, which posted high overall pass rates on the state exam, were trippedup by the performance of special education students.
"Of course, it's very disappointing for us," said Deborah Larson, directorof curriculum and instruction at Libertyville School District 128. "We workedespecially hard with the special education students. It just shows that evengood schools need to continue to improve."
Illinois education officials are just releasing names of schools that didnot meet federal goals--a year after students took the exam. The results,which are supposed to be released in October, were delayed by computerglitches in scoring the exams.
Illinois is the last state to release 2006 results.
The No Child Left Behind law requires that schools test students in readingand math in 3rd through 8th grades and once in high school. Schools are heldresponsible for the overall performance of children, as well as theperformance of subgroups broken down by race, income level and specialeducation status. If even one subgroup falls short, the school fails.
Under the law, schools must ensure that groups of students pass the examsat specified rates. The pass rate schools must meet increases over time untilit reaches 100 percent in 2014.
Schools that miss the targets are deemed low performing. If the schoolreceives federal money to help poor students, it faces escalating sanctions,including being required to provide free after-school tutoring.
Of the nearly 700 schools that did not meet the federal targets, about halffailed only because of the performance of special education students.
Nationwide, educators have debated whether the federal law demands too muchof special education students. Some argue it's unrealistic to expect them topass tests at the same rate as other students; others contend that schoolsneed to do more to help special education students surpass the bar.
Laura Kaloi, a policy director for the National Center for LearningDisabilities, said No Child Left Behind has forced schools to focus attentionon special ed students. As a result, she said, those students are making gainson state and national exams.
"This is the first time that we have data on how special education studentsare doing compared to their peers and it is making a lot of people nervous,but that's a good thing," she said. "We strongly advocate that these kids notbe pushed out of the accountability system based on the hue and cry."