A “new” accountability plan for Illinois high schools–with the same old status quo

Last week, I wrote broadly about Illinois’ new accountability plan, where the goals promised “a focus on equity and excellence for all students” but where the details appear to fall far, far short of that.

Understanding this plan is not yet cast in stone, let’s look at one area where Illinois seeks to break new ground but only clears a very low bar: College and career readiness.

Historically, high school accountability has always been a vexing conundrum for states and districts. There are no tests that reliably measure growth over the high school years, so many states rely on the snapshot of college-entrance tests such as SAT and ACT to measure academic progress. Graduation rates also stand as an important proxy of school quality, but one that has become easy to game given the explosion of online credit recovery courses and shortcut programs that juice graduation rates but leave students unprepared in the courses they are purportedly passing.

Nearly half of all states have required students to pass an “exit exam” to graduate, although the bar for passing these “high-stakes” tests is so low in many of these states that it became a meaningless measure of college or career readiness. And in some states, these exit exams have evolved into end-of-course exams that presumably measure proficiency across multiple subjects.

Illinois’ new high school accountability goal is that 90 percent of students graduate from high school ready for college and career–and schools have got 15 years to get to that goal, which suggests a certain absence of, ahem, urgency.

So how does the state plan to measure that? Illinois doesn’t use exit exams and already replaced the mandated ACT (with the widely derided Prairie State exams) with the SATs. But now there’s a lot more in Illinois high school accountability plan. Here’s a quick look:

  1. Half of the high school accountability score will be tied to growth in graduation rates–unless and until the state agrees to fund a second exam that could measure academic growth in two grades (but don’t hold your breath on that happening anytime soon). So until then, the state will compare 9th grade “on-track rates”–the percentage of freshman who have passed at least five full-year classes each semester, a measure that has proven to reliably predict graduation–to four-year graduation rates. Schools that have 90 percent or greater of 9th-grade students on-track and, in four years, graduate 90 percent or more of those students will receive the highest designation as an “exemplary school.”    What’s the rub there? For the many high schools already graduating 90 percent of their students, looks like there is no room to grow here—they are already “exemplary.” The state’s overall four-year graduation rate is already 85.5 percent, so the goal of growing just 4.5 percent over 15 years doesn’t feel like much of a lift.
  2. Some 20 percent of a high school accountability scores measures “proficiency” in math and English (with some science mixed in by 2019 if the state ever manages to agree on an acceptable science test). But what score on the SAT is considered proficient? Don’t know. Is it the same score that suggests college readiness? Illinois’ plan doesn’t say. Of course, the SAT doesn’t lend itself to simplistic “pass/fail” cut scores, but then again, the state shouldn’t pretend the test can be used for “proficiency.”
  3. Here’s the newest and most convoluted aspect of high school accountability–how it measures career/college readiness. To be considered “career-college ready, a student must secure:
  • A GPA of 2.8 (out of 4.0). Really? A C+ average seems like the right bar to define excellence?
  • A 95% attendance in junior and senior years. Really? What happened to that crucial freshman year where attendance and course completion is so predictive of high school success–shouldn’t that count?
  • At least one “academic indicator” in both English and math during the junior and senior year. This includes a range of options, including taking AP or IB courses (and earning at least a C), passing the AP or IB exams, taking Algebra II at any grade, taking college-credit courses in math and English, earning at least a 480 in English/writing and a 530 in math on the SAT, scoring at least 18 on the ACT English, 22 on ACT Reading and 22 on ACT Math. Well, at least the test scores are pegged at college readiness benchmarks, but seems like there are plenty of other ways to hit this bar even without that bare-minimum score,
  • At least three “career-ready indicators” during junior and senior year. So what counts here? School-organized extracurriculars such as clubs and sports. Two summers of employment. A full year of “consistent employment.” ROTC service. Community service hours. Something vague described as a “Workplace Learning Experience.” Something even vaguer called “Completion of a Program of Study.” I’ll concede that holding a job, volunteering and getting involved in school activities suggests a degree of responsibility and “readiness” – but can you imagine the bureaucratic nightmare of tracking these indicators for every high school senior in Illinois? And really, how much attention will schools pay to assembling this exhaustive list for every student when it only “counts”  for 6.25 percent of a school’s accountability score?

So where does that leave us?

High schools in suburbs, small towns and most rural areas can continue to deliver the same uneven and unimaginative education to our high school students. As long as they keep their graduation rates above 67 percent they will stay out of the state’s crosshairs and even be considered “exemplary” or “commendable.”

High-poverty high schools that graduate fewer than two-thirds of students will continue to be stigmatized as the state’s lowest performing schools and subject to “comprehensive services.”

A new accountability plan. The same old status quo.

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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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