‘Our schools are not failing’
Though a majority of students at East Maine School District 63 last scored well on state exams last year, five of the district’s seven schools failed to meet federal benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind Act.
As a result the district did not demonstrate adequate yearly progress, or AYP, for the fifth consecutive year.
Administrators say imperfect legislation, not lackluster education, is to blame, as evidenced by the number of schools locally and nationally that also struggle to satisfy federal requirements.
“The biggest question I get is, ‘Is my child’s school failing?’” said Charlene Cobb, executive director of teaching and learning. “I have to say unequivocally, no, our schools are not failing.”
The past year 696 school districts — or 80 percent of all Illinois districts — did not reach AYP, according to data provided by District 63. Only nine of 1,325 high schools in the state met performance standards.
“The fact is NCLB is a flawed law,” District 63 Superintendent Scott Clay said. “You won’t hear educators defending it, you won’t hear politicians defending it.”
He and Cobb gave a special presentation Sept. 5 on how Illinois Standards Achievement Test data relates to federal law.
Enacted in 2001, NCLB requires states, districts and schools to demonstrate academic progress by having a certain percentage of students score satisfactorily on statewide assessments.
Subgroups of students must meet certain standards, too. Students are identified according to their ethnic and racial makeup, and are grouped together if they have limited English proficiency, special needs, or are from low-income families.
If one subgroup doesn’t reach a benchmark in one subject, the district is labeled as not making AYP.
Clay said positive aspects of the act, such as keeping educators accountable for ensuring the success of all students, are overshadowed by the drawbacks.
Annually achieving “arbitrary standards” like 100 percent student proficiency on standardized tests by 2014 “just cannot be done,” Clay said.
Reading benchmarks have consistently posed a problem for District 63.
The past year the district was 3 percentage points shy of having 85 percent of all students achieve passing scores in the subject, according to a report from the Illinois State Board of Education.
Hispanic students and students with disabilities did not meet exam standards.
The Hispanic subgroup missed both its math and reading targets by less than five percentage points.
On the other hand, 39.1 percent of students with disabilities met the 52.6 percent minimum target in reading.
This group fared better in math with half the students passing, but needed a 67.2 percent success rate to achieve AYP.
And despite nearly 83 percent of economically-disadvantaged kids meeting or exceeding math proficiency standards, the required passing rate was 85 percent.
Overall, 87.7 percent of District 63 students performed satisfactorily in math.
On a school level, the size of the student population, as well as the number of students who fall into subgroup categories, affect whether it makes AYP. Schools are only held accountable for subgroups consisting of 45 students or more.
Melzer School in Morton Grove and Washington School in Glenview achieved annual yearly progress standards.
That’s not to say instruction at the junior high and other elementary schools is sub-par, Clay said.
Elementary schools like Apollo and Washington, for example, have programs for children with special needs — and, therefore, a greater concentration of these students.
Melzer, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same number of subgroups, which is advantageous when it comes to meeting test standards.
Clay said instruction, curriculum, and the quality of teachers are the same across the board for all of the district’s schools.
“There’s nothing that’s happening at Melzer School that isn’t happening at your school right now,” he told about a dozen parents and community members in the audience at the Sept. 6 meeting.
Cobb said keeping schools diverse with children of different capabilities and backgrounds is beneficial to all students in the long run.
“Our students are going to better prepared to enter the work force and to work collaboratively with other people because of those experiences,” Cobb said.
“There’s much to be proud of.”