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Good news, bad news for Naper schools on state report card

Third grade students Judi Kernkamp's class raise their hands as they work reading activity Highlands Elementary Tuesday. Jeff Cagle /

Third grade students in Judi Kernkamp's class raise their hands as they work on a reading activity at Highlands Elementary on Tuesday. Jeff Cagle / For Sun-Times Media

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For a more than a decade, the Chicago Sun-Times has based its exclusive rankings of schools on average scores on state achievement tests, not on the percentage who meet state standards — a measure that has come under criticism.

Only 2011 reading and math results from the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests and the Prairie State Achievement Exams taken last March and April were analyzed. Results in those subjects can trigger sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Elementary school rankings are based on schools that tested at least two grades, third to fifth.

Middle-school rankings reflect at least two tested grades, sixth through eighth. High school rankings are based on 11th-grade results. A K-8 school could be ranked among both elementary and middle schools.

The rankings use a statistical method called standardizing to analyze the “scale score” of every reading and math test statewide.

The method compares each test score with the state average and creates a school average that’s compared with other schools’ averages. Standardizing levels the playing field in years when one test might be harder to pass than others.

The rankings include percentiles, reflecting the percentage of Illinois students who scored the same as or worse than the average student at each ranked school.

Sun-Times staff reporter Art Golab performed the analyses.

2011 Illinois School Report Cards
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Updated: December 3, 2011 8:08AM

The state’s annual assessment of public school performance suggests both accolades and admonitions for local districts.

As the achievement requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind Act continue to rise, fewer schools and districts are meeting the minimum needed to be deemed meeting Adequate Yearly Progress. Although their students continued to outperform most of their peers elsewhere on standardized tests, neither Naperville School District 203 nor Indian Prairie School District 204 was found to be meeting the requirements system-wide for making AYP, according to the annual report cards on the state’s 4,493 public schools released last weekend by the Illinois State Board of Education.

“I think there were eight high schools across the state that made AYP,” said Patrick Nolten, director of research and assessment for District 204. “We’re not one of the eight.”

Among the conditions for the designation is an 85 percent cutoff for students in every group to meet or exceed standards in reading and math. In both districts, subgroups that include students with limited English proficiency and economic disadvantages, Hispanic and African American students, and students with disabilities scored below the target in one or both test subjects.

“To get every subgroup up to 85 percent or higher is getting harder,” Nolten said.

In any attempt to gauge student performance, a level playing field can be elusive. The local districts make an effort to identify gaps as soon as students come into the system, and economic inequalities and social policies sometimes impose limits that need to be taken on right away.

“It’s possible that some groups have advantages that other groups don’t have, for societal reasons,” Nolten said.

He said one benefit to come out of the federal legislation is that its emphasis on subgroups has compelled school districts to break their data apart and take a closer look at how they’re doing things.

The flip side of the standards-based structure is that it can generate misleading outcomes.

“In 2011, District 203 met 332 out of 363 NCLB categories as measured in the areas of participation, achievement and attendance/graduation by No Child Left Behind,” the district’s principals noted in a letter they added to each campus report card.

In similarly high-achieving District 204, it’s also a challenge to excel within the federal parameters.

“We’re fortunate that 17 out of our 21 (schools) made AYP in reading and math,” Nolten said. “Many places have gone over that waterfall long ago.”

Administrators and educators agree the requirements of NCLB show room for improvement. Unless the law undergoes a major overhaul, things will become harder before there is any letup. The bar goes up 7 percent every year, and it will hit 100 percent in 2014. Nolten is concerned that the increasingly stringent standards could leave virtually all of the state’s public schools out of the winner’s circle.

He said the federal “one-size-fits-all” law enacted in 2002 doesn’t provide enough focus on individual student growth.

“With the current model or the current paradigm, there’s really no emphasis on growth over time,” he said. “I’d see value in it if statewide it had led to improvement (but) this has been a policy that has not caused significant changes in achievement.”

Bright side

Evaluated on standardized test score performance averages alone, local learners fared well. Students at Highlands Elementary School in Naperville District 203 ranked 10th in the six-county Chicago region on a list compiled by Sun-Times media that looks at accumulated scores, rather than the percentage meeting state standards. Fry and White Eagle elementary schools, both in District 204, came in 23rd and 24th respectively. Among middle schools and junior highs, the top 50 list included Gregory, Scullen and Crone in Indian Prairie and Kennedy, in District 203.

And while the state report card left all five of the local high schools off the short list of schools making AYP, the score-based ranking of the metropolitan region put them all in its top 50. Naperville Central and Neuqua Valley placed highest, at 12th and 13th, while Naperville North ranked 18th. The first set of test scores at Metea, which opened last year, gave the northeast Aurora school a 35th place rank on the list, and Waubonsie Valley was declared 43rd.

Highlands’ high ranking was no accident.

“It’s certainly a combination of efforts,” Principal Susan Stuckey said. “Our teachers are very innovative, and work at lessons that engage students and put them at the center.”

The school’s subgroups have done well in the recent standardized test cycle.

“We see our kids evenly achieving (including) the special education population,” Stuckey said. “We are pretty proud of that.”

Part of the school’s success, she said, can be traced to its delivery platform.

“We focus on using a common language of thinking behavior,” she said, adding that the approach eases the processing of new information. “We try to make it integrated, and an authentic language, but that’s added to the instruction and the curriculum they experience in the classroom.”

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