Changes to No Child Left Behind Mean Greater Flexibility, More Realistic Goals for Illinois Schools

After every state failed to reach the original No Child Left Behind standard of proficiency for all students by 2014, a new waiver for Illinois will give schools more freedom with funding and higher standards.

The new system, approved for next academic year, is less punitive, said Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for Illinois State Board of Education. While NCLB had its advantages, “it had a lot of one-size-fits-all punishments and labels,” she said.

Currently, 42 other states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have obtained waivers giving them greater flexibility. Iowa and Wyoming have waivers under review.

As of 2013, Chicago Public Schools did not meet the standards for Adequate Yearly Progress—2014 will mark CPS’ seventh year on academic watch status.  By 2013, 92.5 percent of CPS students should have been proficient in math and reading, according to NCLB standards. Yet only 49.2 percent and 47.2 percent met the standards for math and reading, respectively.

“The idea that every student would be at…100 percent proficiency by 2014 without really any extra support is kinda ridiculous,” said Joe Linehan, a second grade teacher at Eberhart Elementary on the city’s southwest side and a Chicago Teachers Union delegate. He said NCLB is “basically an unfunded mandate.”

Some of the biggest changes coming to Illinois schools are the new benchmarks, which will at once raise standards and make goals more reachable.

The waiver will continue the Illinois Learning Standards, which raised benchmarks in mathematics and English language arts when it was first implemented in 2010.

Testing, however, will change.

The state will switch from the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) and the Prairie State Achievement Exam to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers. According to ISBE, the PARCC exam will “provide more precise information” about how students are faring, using more “engaging” testing and an online format.

But Linehan remains skeptical, saying that tests are flawed and that the proficiency standards created by test makers can be arbitrary.

“I don’t think they’re as scientific as people like to think of them as being,” he said.

Despite higher standards, the waiver also aims to make NCLB goals more manageable. The original NCLB goals were sweeping, asking all schools and subgroups to be at 100 percent proficiency by 2014. With the waiver, a group that was at 60 percent would instead have to “improve by half,” Fergus said.

Linehan agreed that more realistic goals make sense, but “standards really don’t educate anybody,” he said, noting that NCLB asks for steady academic growth from students, even as Chicago schools are upended by budget cuts and “turnarounds.”

“Pretty much every adult in the building is replaced,” Linehan said, calling Chicago’s implementation of NCLB “heavy handed.” The resulting instability in CPS schools led to higher dropout rates, he said.

On the surface, however, the waiver may seem to leave some groups behind, as lower-performing groups will have lower proficiency goals: a group originally at 80 percent proficient might have to increase to 90 percent in the next six years; however, a group originally at 60 percent proficient would have to increase to 80 percent in the same time frame. Rather than asking less of struggling groups, the waiver aims to redefine failure, asking for proportional growth instead of perfection.

Percentages will be measured differently, using the new and more holistic Multiple Measure Index. The index takes into account graduation rates, scholastic achievement (measured with PARCC), data on achievement gaps, student growth and achievement on the ACT and the National Career Readiness Certificate. Perhaps most importantly, schools and subgroups within schools—such as students with disabilities, English Language Learners and major racial groups—will be judged in context, taking school climate and course offerings into account.

NCLB’s one-size-fits-all style also led to poorly distributed funding.

“Not every student requires the same amount of resources,” Linehan said.

Now, schools will have greater flexibility when it comes to spending Title I funding, which goes to low-income students. In the past, these funds have generally been used for school choice or school tutoring, Fergus said. Under the waiver, schools will have more options, allowing them to determine what would be most beneficial to low-income students’ success.

As Illinois schools begin implementing the new benchmarks and testing in the coming school year, Congress must face what many consider to be a broken Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESAE), first implemented in 1965 and last reauthorized as NCLB in 2002.

For Linehan, the law is past saving.

“NCLB is a failed idea,” he said, adding that most people recognize this, but the government now uses it as a “weapon” to get reforms.

Congress has yet to act on the ESAE, which spurred the Obama Administration to announce the flexibility waivers in 2011. The waivers, while helpful, are only a temporary fix.

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