Illinois’ school accountability plan fails on pillar promises of equity and transparency

Illinois released the latest draft of its public school accountability plan last week­– 164 pages of policy that is supposed to reassure the public and parents that our state will “ensure a focus on equity and excellence for all students.”

I’m not reassured.

Yes, there are things to like in this plan. It rightly shifts the accountability focus on student “growth” – how much a student improves from year to year– rather than “proficiency,” an arbitrary cut-point for what represents grade-level learning.

And it does examine school quality measures that aim to give insight to important factors that can’t be measured by a standardized test score–chronic absenteeism, a freshman-on-track metric for high schoolers and school climate surveys (with the last two measures developed by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research).

But this plan fails to deliver on two fundamental promises – that our most vulnerable students will be protected, and that our accountability system will actually hold our schools accountable.

This is a plan that purports to set high goals:

  • 90 percent of students reading at grade level
  • 90 percent meeting expectations in math
  • 90 percent students graduate from high school ready for college and career
  • All students educated by highly prepared and effective teachers and school leaders
  • Every school offers a safe and healthy learning environment for all students

So what’s the catch?

Schools have until the year 2032 to meet these goals–15 long years to get up to snuff. It’s literally a lifetime in the schooling of an Illinois student–so the kindergartener who enrolls next fall will be three years out of high school before any school is answerable for these goals.

Here’s another catch: Nothing much happens if schools don’t hit these goals, or even make reasonable progress toward these goals.

The very worst schools, essentially the ones who serve a high population of low-income students AND hover in the bottom 5 percent of all accountability measures, will be labeled a “lowest-performing school” and will receive “comprehensive services” and be forced to “develop an improvement plan.” Sounds brutal right?

The next lowest category will be called an “underperforming school,” and that only applies if specific populations of students– “subgroups” of low-income students, students with disabilities, Asian students, for example–score so poorly that their academic performance is on par with students in the worst schools in the state.

That leaves the two highest categories–“exemplary schools” and “commendable schools.”

If this plan prevails, count on this: Close to 90 percent of schools will fall into one of those two rosy sounding categories, which will only perpetuate the myth that the status quo is working just fine for kids in nearly all of our schools, and that it’s only those “other schools,” those terrible high-poverty schools, that are failing children.

So to translate this into terms the general public will understand, 10 percent of schools will land an A, 70 to 80 percent of schools will get a B, and the remaining fraction will get a D or F.

Talk about grade inflation.

In my next several posts, I’m going to unpack the most egregious shortcomings in Illinois’ accountability proposal:

  • How vulnerable “subgroups” of students will once again disappear from accountability, presuming they attend schools that are not the worst of the worst but merely mediocre or even average.
  • How low the state set the bar for college-and-career readiness.
  • How the state punted when it came to setting a meaningful standard for teacher quality..

I appreciate that the state’s willingness to submit a plan, any plan, when it’s not even clear the federal government will uphold the minimum standards required by Every Student Succeeds Act. But just in case reason prevails in Washington DC, let’s hope Illinois fixes this plan. It’s not good enough.

Stay tuned.

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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