Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022
The annual Illinois School Report Cards under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) were released on October 30. The report cards are now focused on student growth under ESSA which was signed into law four years ago. This will be the second Report Card released in Illinois under the new reporting guidelines under ESSA that requires states to evaluate schools on a variety of indicators of success, rather than just by student achievement. These report cards will rank schools from “Exemplary” to “Lowest-Performing” and report school spending this year as well as student performance data.
Every Student Succeeds Act
In 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law. This was a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which had been law since 2002. The goals of ESSA align with the same goals of NCLB, such as narrowing achievement gaps and promoting accountability for schools. ESSA, however, does this by giving state and local stakeholders more control over plans to remedy underperformance, the standards that are taught, and the plans and goals set forth for student growth. Students will still be tested in grades three through twelve, but ESSA provides more local control over how, when, and even what test (in some instances) is administered. Additionally, ESSA does away with the punitive consequences imposed under NCLB that often left few options for schools that performed poorly on the mandatory tests.
One of the primary goals of ESSA is to broaden school accountability beyond a school’s “Adequate Yearly Progress” reported in NCLB. Under both pieces of legislation, states and schools are required to publish yearly report cards. ESSA requires that these reports are concise, understandable, easily accessible to the public, and written in plain language that parents can understand. This includes posting the report card on state and district websites and publishing translated report cards for large populations of non-English speakers that the state or district serves. The report must include information about schools that the public may be unfamiliar with including graduation rates by subgroup, information about suspensions and expulsions, student absenteeism, and teacher qualifications. School spending and student achievement are also reported, and it is these two areas that schools find the most trouble complying with.
Reporting school spending and performance
First, ESSA calls for financial transparency down to a per-pupil, per-school level which has never been done before. This will be helpful in identifying spending inequities across different schools and lead to a more informed public. Hopefully, this will also lead to a better understanding of how schools are spending money compared to how schools are achieving. Some school leaders are concerned, however, about the difficulties that may arise by reporting at the school level. Practically, spending does not operate in a bubble and not every school is an island. Because many schools operate under the umbrella of school districts, not every dollar spent is separable by specific school; some are overhead costs such as transportation. School leaders are also concerned that the reporting may mislead the public who does not have a full understanding of school finance and the cost of necessary programs such as special education.
NCLB Report Cards focused primarily on student achievement, and while student achievement is still a required part of ESSA, the conclusions are formulated with more state discretion. States will now have some flexibility in determining how schools will be evaluated. Each state is required to include at least four indicators. Proficiency on state tests and English-language proficiency are required for everyone, but the state must choose at least one more academic indicator and an additional one at the state’s discretion. States are not limited to four, and in fact one district uses more than 28 indicators. States also get the chance to determine the weight of indicators, however there is direction that the academic proficiencies must be of a much higher weight than the other indicators.
Illinois’s compliance with ESSA
Illinois has chosen to use ten indicators to determine school performance. 75% of a school’s rating is based on Academic Indicators including English language arts and math growth and proficiency, science proficiency, English learner progress to proficiency, and graduation, for high school. The other 25% will be based on “School Quality and Student Success Indicators” including chronic absenteeism, a culture and climate survey, and a fine arts indicator that has not yet been implemented.
Each year, every school is given an Illinois Report Card. This Report Card ranks schools based on the indicators, but also has specific criteria for each of the four categories. An Exemplary and Commendable rating, which was given to about 80% of Illinois schools, requires a graduation rate of at least 67% and without any sub-groups performing in the lowest 5% of schools. The difference between the two is that an Exemplary rating requires a school to perform in the top 10% of the state. The other two ratings, Underperforming and Lowest-Performing, are given to schools that have one or more students groups (at least 20 students) performing in the lowest-performing 5% of all schools.