New Illinois Education Model Sent Off for Federal Review

After dozens of listening sessions and meetings with hundreds of parents, educators and administrators, the Illinois State Board of Education announced it has submitted its plan to replace the No Child Left Behind Act to the federal government for review.

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State Superintendent Tony Smith said the board had turned in its state model for the Every Student Succeeds Act to the U.S. Department of Education by Monday’s early deadline. That move comes about three weeks after the state board unanimously approved the plan, which details ISBE’s new school quality measurements and support systems.

“We had to really have a bigger and broader picture of the whole child,” he said during a conference call with media Tuesday. “In Illinois, the idea that we could, in fact, think about the needs of the whole healthy child, think about ways to support kids to be both academically and socially successful and needed to have conversations about having healthy school environments where children can thrive.”

Document: Read a one-page ESSA explainer here

The new act replaces No Child Left Behind, the federal education guidelines that had been in place since the early 2000s. Assuming Illinois' plan gets a green light, the 2017-18 school year will serve as a transition period while the state works to implement its plan fully by 2018-19.

Like all states, Illinois’ ESSA plan is required to measure schools through a combination of academic and school quality indicators. The academic indicators have to outweigh the school quality group, but states are otherwise free to measure those out as they see fit.

Under the new plan, high school juniors will take the SAT while third- through eighth-graders will continue taking the PARCC exam each year.

But instead of focusing solely on raw scores, ISBE is choosing to put more emphasis on continued progression. By valuing academic “growth” – or the amount a student progresses from year to year – over “proficiency” – how well a student scores on a given exam – the state says it has recognized equity as the most immediate path to closing opportunity and achievement gaps.

The above graph shows how indicators will be weighed by 2021. Testing scores on PARCC and SAT exams will begin the 2018-19 school year with a slightly higher weight (20 percent) before dropping off by the end of the following year (15 percent).

Likewise, the fine arts indicator is included in the 2018 model at 0 percent as a placeholder. But that figure will grow after ISBE says it plans to gather information on arts across the state in order to implement a yet-to-be-defined “educative, non-punitive and equitable” measure by 2021.

Beginning in 2019-20, ISBE will begin assigning A-F letter grades to schools based on their student growth as compared to other similar schools within Illinois. The state board will also begin using a new four-tier ranking system for schools based on a combination of overall school performance, student demographic performance and graduation rates.

The lowest performing schools will be required to enroll in IL-EMPOWER, the state’s new educational support system. ISBE says this program puts greater emphasis on sustained improvement and affords more flexibility to schools in choosing their improvement strategies.

“A lot of the conversation we heard around the state is that one size doesn’t fit all,” Smith said. “There are very specific and different needs in schools. We need a range of providers, we need people who have demonstrated success.”

Schools in the EMPOWER program must conduct an equity audit and create a four-year improvement plan along with providing ISBE with quarterly updates. The state board will identify individual school needs over the next year while creating a vendor list to connect schools with those support services. In 2018-19, ISBE will then re-evaluate schools using data from the previous two school years.

It's not yet clear exactly how many schools will fall into each tier, but Smith said the lowest performing 5 percent of schools are centralized within 30 districts. Ten of those districts are comprised of 100 percent low-income students, while the other 20 districts have between 60 and 99.9 percent low-income kids.

The plan has received some criticism from teacher unions within the state, which have said they want a plan that prioritizes learning over standardized testing and won't penalize schools for a lack of resources.

Now that it's been submitted, the U.S. Education Department has 120 days to peer review Illinois’ ESSA plan and either approve it or provide additional feedback. Last month, the U.S. Senate voted to drop Obama-era accountability measures dealing with school improvement and quality ratings that had been included in ESSA. But Smith said those changes had no impact on the way ISBE finalized its plan.

“Our plan is Illinois’ best plan for our kids,” Smith said. “Essentially the changes were in line with things we had already been doing. ... We kind of followed what we had been doing from the beginning and the direction we had gotten from legislators about using the law to drive the process, and we did that.”

Follow Matt Masterson on Twitter: @ByMattMasterson

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