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.