It starts out very small.
If a group of students in an Illinois school reaches 45 members, that group whether it be special education students, a minority group or kids with limited English skills qualifies as a subgroup under school testing criteria and No Child Left Behind. And that subgroup needs to reach target testing scores.
If it does not, an entire school, or even an entire district, could be deemed failing.
Those rules would seem to give schools like Prospect High School in Mount Prospect an advantage. With a student population that is 83.3 percent white and has just 0.1 percent of its members classified as having limited English proficiency, Prospect fits the bill of a school with low populations in subgroups.
And a year after failing to meet NCLB standards, Prospect this year became the only Northwest suburban high school to earn a passing grade.
Principal Kurt Laakso acknowledges that the more subgroups at a school, the more difficult it is to hit the test score targets.
The school's minority population falls well below the Northwest Suburban High School District 214 average of 33.5 percent and the state average of 47.2 percent. The District 214 average for students with limited English is 5 percent and the state average is 7.8 percent. About 7.4 percent of Prospect students come from low-income households, compared to 17.9 percent districtwide and 45.4 percent statewide.
But Laakso said the school's improvement is more than just a result of demographics.
"We saw gains in the special education domains, and that was very satisfying," he said.
He also noted Prospect's doubling of students enrolled in Advanced Placement classes and passing those tests compared to four years ago and lauded teachers for working together to help boost ACT scores among students in subgroups.
He credits communication with parents, students and the school staff for the success. They've worked on better curriculum, and this year's report card proves it.
"This, again, validates that work," he said.
Schaumburg Township District 54 was the only school district in the Northwest suburbs to earn a passing grade this year after receiving failing marks the previous year. What makes the feat especially impressive, Superintendent Ed Rafferty said, is that the 27-school district has more subgroups than most.
"We are a majority minority district now," he said.
District 54 is 47.8 percent white, nearly 5 percentage points lower than the state average. About 16 percent of the district's students have limited English proficiency, about twice the state average.
Like Prospect, District 54 credits better communication, especially with teachers who have more opportunity to talk with their peers and share teaching tips. A student's success doesn't fall on just one teacher anymore.
Five years ago the average test score in District 54 was 76.2. This year it is 89.6. The district set goals to review each school's performance three times a school year, every 90 days.
"We stole this from the business community," Rafferty said.
Rafferty and Karen Hindman, assistant superintendent for district improvement, said teachers no longer use subgroups as excuses for failing.
"Whomever walks into our schools or district, we're there to educate," Rafferty said.