And then there were six.
Out of 30 DuPage County school districts examined by the Daily Herald, only six smaller, relatively affluent DuPage districts remain ahead of the curve of No Child Left Behind standards, according to the annual state report card data released today.
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The 2012 report card data measure student achievement on standardized testing, which reflects the districts' progress at making "adequate yearly progress" toward 100 percent of students meeting or exceeding federal standards by 2014.
Superintendents of districts that hit the mark, which this year required 85 percent of students to meet or exceed federal standards, are quick to praise exceptional teachers, involved parents and talented students for their success. But more factors are at play.
Analysis of state report card data shows districts that met AYP this year often are small, elementary-level districts with students in few demographic groups and a middle-income-to-affluent tax base.
The trend proves true in DuPage County, where these districts made adequate yearly progress on tests taken this spring: Benjamin Elementary District 25 in the Carol Stream and West Chicago area; Bloomingdale Elementary District 13; Butler Elementary District 53 in Oak Brook; Itasca Elementary District 10; Salt Creek Elementary District 48 in Elmhurst, Oak Brook, Oakbrook Terrace and Villa Park; and Winfield Elementary District 34.
Superintendents don't discount factors of district size, ethnic makeup and socioeconomic status, but they say the varied needs of children with disabilities and the practice of basing a school's designation on test results from one day make meeting AYP a challenge for even the best-situated districts.
"There are so many variables that affect AYP, it's difficult for us to predict it," said Marcia Tornatore, superintendent of Itasca Elementary District 10.
School officials say they attained AYP by providing individual instruction to struggling students, by using tests to gauge progress and make curriculum adjustments, and by building lessons in reading and math into all elements of the school day.
"The challenge is always to do better each and every year," said Jon Bartelt, superintendent of Bloomingdale Elementary District 13. "It's a good challenge to have."
Situated to succeed
The six DuPage districts that made AYP have one thing in common -- they're small. The largest, District 13, has three schools and 1,185 students. The smallest, Winfield Elementary District 34, has two schools and 356 students.
"Because we're small, the staff knows every student not just academically, but also personally," said Philip Ehrhardt, superintendent at Benjamin Elementary District 25, which has two schools and 748 students.
Successful districts also tend to have fewer demographic groups tracked under No Child Left Behind. Students in "subgroups" are required to meet or exceed standards if a school or district has at least 45 students in the subgroup, such as Asian, black, Hispanic, white or economically disadvantaged students or students with disabilities or limited English.
"If you have fewer subgroups, there's no question that helps," said Norm Durflinger, director of the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University. "Many times, even your highest-achieving school districts do not make AYP with their special ed subgroup."
That was the case for Benjamin District 25 in 2011, Ehrhardt said, but the district recovered and made AYP this year.
"We restructured how we delivered services for our special ed students so we could intensify the instruction in the language arts," he said.
Testing and targeting
Districts that met AYP say they use previous test results to identify students who are behind in English and math. Once those children are identified, teachers, literacy specialists and math tutors can collaborate to provide instruction aimed at bringing their skills up to speed.
Districts call this approach Response to Intervention and use it to help students build and apply understanding in tested subjects, Itasca's Tornatore said.
At Erickson School in Bloomingdale, individual instruction involves surveying student interests so teachers can know how best to motivate them, Principal John Markgraf said. If several students all play on a travel soccer team, the teacher can try to transfer their competitiveness into class, he said.
"Kids in the classroom are diverse and we want to tap into their talents," he said.
Reading and math
Districts where at least 85 percent of students met federal reading and math standards say daily activities contribute to test-taking success.
"We're involving all teachers in the instruction of reading and math," Tornatore said.
Such integration can help build an environment to foster success, said Durflinger of Illinois State University.
"The schools (that succeed) have a culture of improvement, a culture of no excuses," he said.
As the bar of No Child Left Behind rises higher, aiming for 2014 when 100 percent of students will be required to meet or exceed standards unless the state receives a waiver, districts that succeeded this year say they may soon fail to make the cut.
"It's a lofty goal but not a realistic goal that 100 percent of all students are going to meet the standards," Ehrhardt said. "We try our very best, but there are limitations."