Thursday, October 31, 2013

State Board of Education puts new face on school data

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois State Board of Education released an updated version of its annual school date reports, which officials say will give parents a more holistic view of Illinois schools.

The board released its Illinois Report Cards for the state’s school districts today. ISBE used about $600,000 in federal funding from the Race to the Top program to redesign the report cards in an effort to make them more user-friendly. The new version of the report cards does not focus only on test scores, it also includes school conditions, school budget information and the college readiness of students. “In previous years, the school report card focused on student performance on state standardized tests. While this data is important, we all know that test scores alone do not provide a full picture of student learning or a school's climate and learning conditions,” said a video about the data on ISBE’s website.

The interactive report cards provide test scores as well as other information, including average class size, per-student spending and teacher retention rates. Parents can find information about courses and extracurricular activities offered and a link to a survey of students and teachers about their schools. The report cards also provide student demographic data. The information released today indicates that almost 50 percent of students in the state are classified as low-income, and 2 percent are homeless. Nearly half of all students are minorities, with a growing number of Hispanic students contributing to the robust minority student population.

“The data we’re releasing today provide a better picture of student and school growth than ever before,”  Christopher  Koch, the state superintendent, said in a written statement. “We’re no longer providing just a snapshot of student performance but offering something more akin to a video of ongoing progress toward ensuring that every public school student in Illinois is prepared to succeed in college and careers.”

The report cards come after the state placed more rigorous standards on student testing as part of adopting the Common Core curriculum. Under the new requirements, the percentage of students who received a passing grade or better on a statewide standardized test went from 81.2 in 2012 to 61.9 in 2013. “This year’s performance on state tests can’t be viewed in isolation but as part of an unprecedented amount of change and higher expectations that educators, families and policy makers have taken on to better prepare students for the world that awaits them after high school,” state board Chairman Gery J. Chico said in a prepared statement. “I know that it’s a lot of new expectations, and it’s difficult to see school scores decline, but we needed to give families a better indication earlier on of college and career readiness. Students are still learning, and hopefully, in new and more engaging ways under the Common Core Learning Standards, which emphasize that students not only master content but can demonstrate their understanding, along with critical thinking, problem-solving, writing and other important skills.” According to ISBE’s data, only 45.7 of the 2013 high school graduating class is prepared for college coursework based on their ACT scores.

While those stats seem jarring, ISBE is in the process of transition from one major education policy to another. New testing associated with the Common Core program is scheduled to begin by the end of the 2014-2015 school year. However, the state continues to wait for a waiver for No Child Left Behind standards from the federal government. Congress has yet to pass an update to the law, which has been roundly criticized in the years since its implementation for setting unrealistic standards that schools must meet to avoid being dubbed failures. President Barack Obama's administration has opted to grant waivers from the program requirements to states willing to make certain education reforms. According to the ISBE, the U.S. Department of Education is asking Illinois to implement new teacher evaluations that use student performance — measured by test scores — as a key component for evaluating teachers. Illinois law does not call for the new evaluations to be in place statewide until the 2016-2017 school year.

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