report card

Illinois report card: 94 Chicago schools earn low performance rating

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

Nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance on its new accountability system, making some of them possible targets for state intervention.

Statewide, the state ranked 20 percent of its nearly 3,800 schools as  “underperforming” or “lowest performer” on the just-released Illinois Report Card. Landing on the bottom two rungs on the state’s new four-level ratings will trigger aid from the state. It will award struggling schools additional money, visits from specialists in academic improvement, and partnerships with higher-rated schools. (Use our database below to see how your school scored.)

“We should be honest about schools that are not performing as well as other schools — it is not fair to do otherwise,” said Tony Smith, state superintendent of education. Illinois developed the new ratings system to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act passed in 2015.

More so than before, this year’s report card penalizes schools for performance gaps by different student groups — from black and Latino students, to students with disabilities, and English language learners.

Of Chicago’s 94 lowest performers, 40 percent were high schools, a disproportionate number considering that high schools count for closer to 25 percent of district schools. One reason: Any high school with below a 67 percent graduation rate automatically landed a low performing stamp.

Even though Chicago has touted record progress on graduation rates, 27 high schools still fell below that line. Schools also could be dinged in their scores if there was a dramatic differences in grad rates among white and black students, or low-income students and the rest of the student population.

Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border the city’s poorest census tracts. Some are staring down steep enrollment declines and teach a higher-than-average percentage of students with disabilities.

LaTanya McDade, the chief education officer of Chicago schools, said that the district is still  analyzing the state’s data, but will encourage schools to examine the performance gap data identified in the report card and work toward closing them. That could include “taking advantage of financial resources that are available,” McDade told Chalkbeat.

Underperforming schools are eligible for at least $15,000, while the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 in federal funds. Schools must submit an improvement plan to qualify for the money.

The state’s ratings come on the heels of new ratings from Chicago, which bases its system on a different set of metrics and a different standardized test. Chicago also released new enrollment figures last week that showed the district lost another 10,000 students. 

Offering schools with low performance designations additional funding is better than a ratings processes that only penalizes schools that are struggling, said Cassandra Creswell, co-director of Raise Your Hand Action, a parents’ group that advocates for public education investments and has been critical of ratings policies.

“It’s a big improvement that the purpose of the ratings system is to decide who needs the resources.”

How new state ratings work

For the first time, the Illinois Report Card includes a ratings system that touches nearly every school in the state: The top 10 percent of schools earn a blue ribbon seal of “exemplary,” while 70 percent of state schools landed in the commendable category.

Fifteen percent of schools in the state earned an underperforming, and five percent received the low performing designation.

Several metrics — from test scores to chronic absenteeism — factored into the ratings, but not everything was equally weighted.

For elementary and middle schools, the most crucial metric was growth on the annual standardized PARCC exams. Illinois schools flatlined on that this year. Also factored in were chronic absenteeism rates and the number of English learners who demonstrated proficiency on a language exam known as ACCESS.

For high schools, the most heavily weighted metric was the graduation rate, which was half a school’s score. Other metrics were math and language scores on the SAT college-readiness exam and ACCESS scores.

A school’s scores on the culture survey known as the 5Essentials will count in the future, but this year every school received a full set of points on this metric. Future changes to the ratings will also include a measure of year-to-year growth on the college-preparatory PSAT exams in high schools, but that change will take several years to implement, said Jackie Matthews, a spokeswoman for the state.

Only 12 Chicago schools merited the highest-level “exemplary” rating on the Illinois Report Card. Half of the district-run schools, some 252, were tagged commendable.

No charter schools were given an “exemplary” rating, but 60 percent of charter schools, or 71 in total, were found to be commendable, with 40 falling into the two lowest rankings.

The rating system penalizes schools that showed gaps in scores among student groups by race, which could have contributed to many Chicago schools landing an underperforming or low-performing designation.

Alexios Rosario-Moore, policy and programs manager with the neighborhood schools advocacy Generation All, said the system gives schools that have fewer subgroups an advantage in the scoring policy. “If you are a racially and economically isolated school, and you have a high graduation rate, you are going to have a strong rating.”

Other findings

  • Chicago students performed slightly worse on this year’s PARCC exam than in 2017, even as scores statewide remained flat.
  • Statewide, the four-year graduation rate increased to 85.4 percent of all high school seniors, compared to 85 percent last year. Four-year graduation rates for white students was 90.6 percent, 75 percent for black students, and 80.7 percent for Latino students. The graduation rate for students with disabilities was 68.6 percent.
  • The percentage of students enrolling in college 12 months after graduation increased to nearly 74.8 percent of all graduates — up from 68.7 percent just four years ago.
  • Each report card now shows a funding capacity figure — Chicago’s is 63.1 percent, for example — that spotlights the gap between a district’s actual budget and how much it should be spending on education, according to the state’s new funding formula. The funding formula, which passed the state legislature last year, tries to address spending gaps between property-rich and property-poor districts. There’s still a wide range, from 47 percent in suburban Cicero to more than 200 percent in wealthy Lake Forest in Chicago’s northern suburbs.“For the first time, these two worlds are coming together,” said Jessica Handy, government affairs director with Stand for Children Illinois, which consulted on the state’s new accountability system. “This changes conversation from one that blames schools for shortcomings and instead lets families see that, well, we’re not doing great in our school but we only have 60 percent of funding we need.”

Use our database to see how your school scored.

Sam Park contributed data analysis and visuals to this story.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: