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posted: 10/30/2011 5:00 AM

How our schools excel while failing the exam

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Our children's schools are failing. More so than ever.

That's the message being conveyed if you look strictly at the data of the 2011 report card for all schools in Illinois, scheduled for official release Monday.

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The source of all this bad news is the statewide tests mandated by the oft-maligned federal No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for 100 percent of all students to be meeting or exceeding standards imposed by these tests by 2014. The reason the failure rate keeps increasing is that the federal bar is raised each passing year. For example, 85 percent of all students must pass muster for their school not to be officially deemed a failure; last year the rate was 78.5 percent. So while raw test scores might remain the same or improve a bit, the bottom line failure rate goes up. This year, Illinois has 2,548 failing schools and only 1,259 that are passing. Last year, 1,808 schools failed, and 1,999 passed.

Needless to say, local school officials take great umbrage at the label they're given, especially in school districts with true success stories about student achievement. Everyone seems to agree NCLB is not working, and virtually every state in the union including Illinois is asking for a waiver to be exempt from its provisions. It seems likely, too, that the law, passed with great fanfare and bipartisan support, will be overhauled, leaving the question of how we will evaluate our children with a national yardstick.

Against that backdrop, we will begin our coverage of the state report card data in Monday's editions. Staff writer Bob Susnjara will delve into the NCLB controversy. But our real mission here is to try to explain what is going on in the classrooms, where the news is not nearly as dire as the state figures would indicate. All of these stories will be available online, but in print they'll be tailored for their particular geography.

• In our Cook County editions, staff writer Kim Pohl will tell the tale of a school that's made amazing strides, even gained national recognition, for its innovative programs, more rigorous use of advanced placement classes and saw its non-English speaking and disabled student groups make significant gains. Yet it, like many others, isn't officially making the grade.

• In DuPage County, staff writer Marie Wilson found the high school that made the biggest jump -- 1.1 points -- on its ACT composite scores among the 69 high schools in the Daily Herald's circulation area.

• In Lake County, another familiar story, also by Susnjara: Four school districts were lauded just seven months ago by state and national groups for boosting student access to advanced placement exams, but the state report card will label them failures.

• In the Fox Valley area, staff writer Larissa Chinwah explores how one high school boosted the number of students meeting or exceeding math standards by 9.3 percent, while its school district overall climbed 5 percent. Meanwhile, staff writer Susan Sarkauskas delves into some drama involving two St. Charles schools that had plenty of reason to celebrate student achievement this year, but it comes against a painful backdrop of school mergers and a parental lawsuit.

I would have been more specific about the examples above, but there is an embargo against releasing the specifics of the report cards. Suffice it to say, you will see stories and plenty of charts detailing the elementary schools with the best reading and math scores, the high schools with best PSAE and ACT composites, schools with the biggest increases (and decreases) in terms of meeting/exceeding standards in reading, math and science. And, as we're fond of saying around here these days, there's even more online. If you wish, you can search our website and see all the test scores, success/failure rates, teacher salaries for every school in the Daily Herald's coverage area.

And if a theme comes through in our coverage, I hope it's this: Take these results with a grain of salt; it's likely the rules soon will change.

• Jim Davis, jdavis@dailyherald.com, is DuPage editor.

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