Could new education law mean the end of failing schools?
For the past 14 years, the federal No Child Left Behind Act served as the benchmark for how our schoolchildren were faring.
But the law drew considerable criticism for its emphasis on test scores, its labeling of some school districts as "failing" and its punitive nature toward those not making the grade.
Next year, the law will be replaced by the more forward-sounding Every Student Succeeds Act.
This version will be supportive, not punitive, and focus more on student growth than proficiency on tests, said Melina Wright, Illinois State Board of Education division administrator for title grants and federal liaison for ESSA. There are remnants of the earlier law, such as reporting requirements, but no sanctions, such as putting school districts on watch lists, withholding funding or, in some rare cases, closing schools.
Suburban educators like the concept but have a host of questions about how compliance will be measured. And with state deadlines looming for an implementation plan, local administrators say they're being rushed to devise a complicated plan that likely will be in effect for a decade or more.
"We need to start measuring our schools and students on something more than one test given once a year," said Tony Sanders, CEO of Elgin Area School District U-46. "(NCLB) was in place for 12 years, so the prospects of something different are very exciting."
In theory, ESSA could measure schools using various indicators -- prekindergarten through second-grade readiness, students on track in eighth and ninth grades, high school curriculum, Advanced Placement classes and career tech programs -- to determine student growth. Funding and support would be provided to schools struggling the most.
Accountability measures are being drawn up now for a state-specific ESSA plan. A first draft is available on isbe.net.
A second draft is expected to be complete by Nov. 18. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education could issue final ESSA regulations in December, which could change the accountability structure and timeline for implementation.
Illinois has until January to develop and submit its plan to the governor for review. It must then be approved by the state board of education and submitted to the federal government by March.
When gauging student improvement, suburban educators urge taking into consideration demographics and specialized programs, such as fine arts; English Language Learners; gifted education; special education; vocational; science, technology, engineering and mathematics; dual language; and digital literacy.
U-46, the state's second-largest school district, educates roughly 40,000 students, of which more than half are Latino. Nearly 30 percent of students are English Language Learners.
"We have a revolving door of students who are learning English for the first time," Sanders said. "Districts that have large populations of English Language Learners, it's difficult for us to gauge the effectiveness of our ELL programs because once the student exits, they are no longer monitored by the state."
Sanders proposes using multiple assessments to measure growth, instead of the state's standardized test, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, now in its second year. That test's goal is to provide teachers and students timely feedback on their performance to drive instruction. So far, the state hasn't delivered on that promise: Students took the test in the spring, and school districts haven't yet received completed report cards, Sanders said.
Under ESSA, seven states will be part of a federal pilot program to use different performance-based assessments, such as the SAT college entrance exam and other classroom tests, through which students can demonstrate their skills. Illinois wants to be on the list, state education officials say.
Viviana Martinez works with her sixth-grade classmates at Lords Park School in Elgin in their dual language program. Suburban educators say a new federal law that goes into effect next school year should measure schools by more than test scores and consider programs, such as dual language, gifted education, fine arts, English Language Learners, special education, and digital literacy to measure improvement.
- Rick West | Staff Photographer
Out of the loop
With the current timeline for implementation, school districts and parents don't have much time to adjust to any changes coming next year.
"We are looking at how it can impact education for the next 10 to 15 years," said Kevin Myers, superintendent of Mundelein High School District 120, another majority-minority school district. "We would like to make sure we have more input on what that (plan) looks like. Give us more autonomy on which indicators we use to determine success because we vary so much between districts. A law change like this has a significant impact, but we are feeling left out of the loop."
Parents also haven't been engaged in the process enough to understand the new law and its requirements, said Democratic state Rep. Fred Crespo of Streamwood, who serves on the Illinois House Education Committee and represents the 44th House District, which includes U-46 and the state's largest elementary and high school districts -- Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 and Palatine-Schaumburg Township High School District 211.
"ESSA is replacing NCLB, and we still have a lot of work to do to create awareness," he said. "Once we start implementing this, that's when folks will start paying attention and asking questions, and that's going to be too late. It should not come as a surprise a year from now when folks are seeing different report cards."
How federal funding is allocated to schools with the most need also is a concern.
The new law targets the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools for support, including more funding, teacher training, coaching, technical resources and pairing with other school districts for additional help. But educators fear more federal funding could reduce how much state aid districts receive, essentially supplanting funds.
Sanders said within ESSA there are over a dozen references to equity, but nothing about equitable funding based on student demographics and diversity.
"That is something we absolutely have to fix," he said. "If we really want to rethink what schools should look like and how we should be holding students accountable, states across the country need more than eight months to develop a well thought-out plan. It just seems that states are rushed to put this together and it's a pretty big task."