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updated: 10/29/2010 1:49 PM

Suburban schools improve, but not enough

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  • Suburban schools did better on state assessments this year  but not by much.

    Suburban schools did better on state assessments this year but not by much.

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    Graphic: High school scores (click image to open)

  • Achievement gap

    Graphic: Achievement gap (click image to open)

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Suburban schools did better on state assessments this year but not by much.

A Daily Herald analysis shows that 57 percent of suburban schools got more kids to meet state standards this year.

On average, suburban math scores saw a slight increase of half a percentage point, while reading scores stayed relatively flat, rising by a tenth of a percentage point.

Despite that progress, only 54 percent of schools in the Daily Herald's coverage area made the grade under state and federal No Child Left Behind guidelines, down significantly from 64 percent in 2009.

A review of spring state assessment results for suburban schools shows:

More students are meeting state standards, but fewer schools are making the grade because of rapidly rising No Child Left Behind benchmarks.

Elementary and middle schools did better on spring tests than high schools, a fact school officials attribute in part to differences in the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (taken in grade school) and the Prairie State Achievement Exam (taken in high school).

The achievement gap between white students and certain minority groups is getting smaller, but it is still yawning especially for students with a limited grasp of English.

The bar gets higher

Why the disconnect between testing gains recorded by students and the lower success rate for schools?

This year, 77.5 percent of students had to meet state standards for a school to get a passing grade; that threshold is up 7.5 percentage points from last year. The average percentage-point increase among schools that did improve, though, was only 2.2.

That means that even if a majority of suburban schools improved, it was not enough to meet rapidly rising No Child Left Behind standards.

For example, in Elgin Area School District U-46, the state's second-largest district, 17 elementary schools improved in both reading and math this year. But 22 elementary schools in the district still did not meet state standards.

"We have a greater percentage of our students who are at or above average," said Ed DeYoung, U-46's director of assessment and accountability. "That progress ... is not sufficient to meet (No Child Left Behind) standards."

The trend of more schools failing to make adequate yearly progress is expected to continue and even worsen over the next four years. Next year, 85 percent of students must meet standards. By 2014, 100 percent of students must make the grade.

That is not seen as a realistic goal. In other words, virtually all schools even the best are expected to be considered "failing" under No Child Left Behind in 2014.

"At some point, this moving target of adequate yearly progress is going to be impossible to meet," said Matt Haug, principal of Burlington-Central High School in western Kane County.

In the meantime, the rising threshold means that more suburban schools ended up on the state's "early warning" and "watch" lists this year. The early warning list includes 131 suburban schools in 2010, up from 90 last year; the watch list has 57 suburban schools, up from 47. That means almost a third of suburban schools are facing the prospect of academic sanctions under No Child Left Behind.

Elementary gains

Still, schools in the Daily Herald's coverage area did well on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, which is required for students in grades three through eight. More than 58 percent of suburban schools did better on the test this year.

That success did not carry over into suburban high schools. This year, a majority of high schools, more than 53 percent, did worse on the Prairie State Achievement Exam, taken by juniors in the spring.

That trend was apparent in Central Community Unit District 301, where grades three through eight scored above 80 or 90 percent in both reading in math. In the 11th grade, that figure dropped below 70 percent in all subjects.

"We did extremely well at the elementary school level," said Esther Martin, director of curriculum and assessment for District 301. "The struggle is always at the high school."

But experts say the pattern doesn't necessarily mean suburban school districts are doing a phenomenal job educating elementary school students, then somehow horribly failing them between the 8th and 11th grades. "An alternative explanation is that relatively low proficiency benchmarks on the ISAT are creating inflated results that set up large numbers of students to underachieve or fail once they get to high school," writes Paul Zavitkovsky in a 2009 report from the Urban School Leadership Program at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Differences between the ISAT and the Prairie State Achievement Exam mean it is much harder for students and schools to meet state standards in high school.

Sixty-four percent of suburban elementary schools met standards this year, down from 73 percent in 2009. Among middle schools, only 48 percent made the grade down from 61 percent last year. And just 7 percent of high schools made adequate yearly progress compared to 17 percent in 2009.

The achievement gap

The abysmal pass rate among high schools is not just a product of the differences between tests. It also results from the fact that No Child Left Behind requires every demographic subgroup in a school to pass for a school to get a passing grade.

That means that even if 90 percent of a school's students met standards this year, the school would still be considered below par if a single group, such as students with disabilities or those with limited English proficiency, did not meet standards.

The reason this becomes more of an issue in middle and high schools is that a subgroup must have 45 students to be counted by the state. Because middle and high schools are bigger than elementary schools, the likelihood that a subgroup that is not meeting state standards will be reported is much higher.

The so-called "achievement gap" the test score gulf between white students and students in certain minority groups actually shrunk from 2009 to 2010 among suburban schools, continuing a trend seen last year among schools across the state.

In math, the achievement gap between white students and Hispanics, as well as the gap between white and black students, shrunk by about 1.5 percentage points this year. Blacks and Hispanics also made gains in reading, improving by about 0.4 percentage point relative to white students.

Those modest gains, however, did little to close to close the gap. White students at more than 87 percent of suburban schools met state standards in 2010. For black students, that figure was 19 percent; for Hispanics, 16 percent. The most stunning figure is the pass rate for students judged to have limited English proficiency: just 2.5 percent.