A record number of Illinois schools escaped federal No Child Left Behind sanctions this school year, largely because of changes in how schools are judged and alterations that made state achievement exams easier for students to pass.
Nearly 82 percent of the state's public schools met the federal goals on
the 2006 state math and reading tests, compared with 74 percent the year
before, according to a Tribune analysis of state data.
When the federal law passed in 2002, educators and politicians predicted
that the number of failing schools would soar as the passing bar inched up and
schools began testing more students as required by the law.
But states have made so many adjustments to their testing systems, the
numbers have not risen as quickly as expected. In some states, the number of
failing schools actually declined last year. In Illinois, the number has
declined every year since the law was instituted.
"There is clearly a race to the bottom going on," said Kevin Carey, a
policy director at Education Sector, a think tank that studied state testing
changes. "When states change rules under No Child Left Behind, it's always
changes 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 then
every state will follow suit."
About 87 percent of Illinois elementary schools and 72 percent of charter
schools met federal goals.
But high schools did not fare as well. About 35 percent of them missed the
mark, including powerhouses Hinsdale Central and Libertyville High School. The
schools, which posted high overall pass rates on the state exam, were tripped
up by the performance of special education students.
"Of course, it's very disappointing for us," said Deborah Larson, director
of curriculum and instruction at Libertyville School District 128. "We worked
especially hard with the special education students. It just shows that even
good schools need to continue to improve."
Illinois education officials are just releasing names of schools that did
not meet federal goals--a year after students took the exam. The results,
which are supposed to be released in October, were delayed by computer
glitches 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 reading
and math in 3rd through 8th grades and once in high school. Schools are held
responsible for the overall performance of children, as well as the
performance of subgroups broken down by race, income level and special
education status. If even one subgroup falls short, the school fails.
Under the law, schools must ensure that groups of students pass the exams
at specified rates. The pass rate schools must meet increases over time until
it reaches 100 percent in 2014.
Schools that miss the targets are deemed low performing. If the school
receives 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 half
failed only because of the performance of special education students.
Nationwide, educators have debated whether the federal law demands too much
of special education students. Some argue it's unrealistic to expect them to
pass tests at the same rate as other students; others contend that schools
need to do more to help special education students surpass the bar.
Laura Kaloi, a policy director for the National Center for Learning
Disabilities, said No Child Left Behind has forced schools to focus attention
on special ed students. As a result, she said, those students are making gains
on state and national exams.
"This is the first time that we have data on how special education students
are 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 not
be pushed out of the accountability system based on the hue and cry."
NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND STANDARDS
Making grade just got easier
More Illinois schools met U.S. standards because of changes
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