Saturday, November 14, 2009


11/13/2009, 11:23 pm

Melissa Garzanelli, The Times (Ottawa, Il -  83 MI SW OF CHICAGO)

Photo: Tom Sistak Jefferson Elementary School teacher Melissa Soenksen works with her third-grade class. Teachers must address the needs of a variety of subgroups in their classrooms in order to make the grade under No Child Left Behind.
Photo: Tom Sistak Sherman Elementary School teacher Charlene O'Kraski works with her third-grade class. Teachers must address the needs of a variety of subgroups in their classrooms in order to make the grade under No Child Left Behind.


Topic: Standardized test scores of subgroups under No Child Left Behind legislation and how that impacts school districts.

What happened?

In 2002, the federal government enacted No Child Left Behind legislation that required 100 percent of students in schools to meet standards set by each individual state by 2014. Each state set different yearly goals for meeting the demands of this law.

In addition to the mainstream population meeting standards, specific subgroups also were required to meet standards at the same rate. A subgroup was first deemed to be a group of 40 or more students who fell into categories such as special needs, low-income or English as a second language or students who were of certain ethnicities. Later that number was changed to 45.

If a subgroup does not make the annual goal, the school district is considered failing even if the overall population hit the target. Both Ottawa and Streator elementary schools, as well as other districts locally and statewide, did not meet the target this year due to subgroup scores.

Why does it matter?

Educators say the law has been a good thing since it prompted schools to closely examine how they teach students in these subgroups. However, meeting a goal each year that increases by 7.5 percent is nearly impossible. It takes time, they say, to see results from changes to curriculum and utilizing best teaching practices.

"When you look at our aggregate score, we are at 81 percent (of students meeting standards in reading and math) overall. That's not bad at all," said Christine Benson, superintendent of Streator Elementary School District. "But education can't move at the 7.5 percent (increase), especially with subgroups."

SES has a large number of low-income students and those students can require additional services.

"Their lives are more challenging," said Gail Russell, principal at Oakland Park School in Streator. "They do not have as many resources and advantages ... They come with a variety of abilities and how they learn."

Districts that do not make adequate yearly progress for two years in a row are put on the state"s academic early warning list. If progress is not made, the district can be put on the academic watch list. Districts cited for not making AYP must submit a district improvement plan, may be required to offer "school choice" or could have to provide tutoring services from an outside entity.

Under school choice, students can be allowed to transfer to another school in the district, but that depends on space and the discretion of the superintendent and in this area, schools have not been able to comply. In addition, some districts have passed resolutions not to accept students from other districts due to school choice.

The state has threatened that districts can face more serious consequences, such as replacing staff and administration, but with almost half of all districts in Illinois falling short of this year"s target of 70 percent of students meeting state standards, the state does not have the resources to do that.

Some of these districts are considered failing because of subgroups. Most smaller school districts do not have enough students to make a subgroup and therefore are not impacted by this part of the law.

Next year, the target will be 77.5 percent of students meeting standards and the following year 85 percent. By 2014, all districts will be considered failing, educators said, because it is impossible for every student to meet standards.

"It's an unrealistic goal," said Ottawa Elementary School Superintendent Craig Doster.

Laura Dawson, principal at Kimes School in Streator, said statistically, student achievement falls under the bell curve model, with most students rating as average. NCLB asks all students to be above average.

"One hundred percent is not realistic," she said. "Schools have done an outstanding job to have 70 percent meet standards."

What"s next?

School officials say they are working to address the needs of all students, including subgroups, but taking a student who has a cognitive level of a third-grader and helping him prepare to be tested with his peers as a fifth-grader is not an easy task.

"With the difference between the cognitive level versus the grade level, it makes it difficult and unfair for special needs students," said Doster. "As teachers work with special need students, they show a tremendous amount of growth with intervention and direct instruction, but they fall short of a continuously moving target mandated by the federal and state government."

Carodeane Armstrong, principal at Sherman School in Streator, said she's witnessed special needs students break down during testing because they become frustrated at being asked to perform above their abilities.

"One boy curled up in a closet he was so upset that the test was too hard," she said. "It broke my heart to see him struggle."

Educators would like to see a growth model, whereby students must show improvement each school year, rather than creating a target that keeps changing each year.

The law has been slightly modified to allow a "safe harbor" for subgroups, meaning they must improve by 10 to 14 percent from the previous year even if they can't meet the annual target. But schools say even that is unrealistic since eventually all students will still be required to meet state standards.

SES has seen improvements on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test since the law began. In 2004, 26.8 percent of students with special needs met standards in reading and 31.8 percent in math. In 2009, 42.8 percent met in reading and 74.2 percent in math. For low-income students in 2004, 46.9 percent met standards in reading and 57.6 percent in math. In 2009, 70.4 percent met in reading and 83.9 percent met in math. By seeking improvement at a realistic pace, schools can succeed, SES officials said.

OES has also made advances. In reading, special needs students' scores have increased from 27 percent in 2004 to 33.8 percent in 2009. In math, scores have increased from 32 percent in 2004 to 46.7 percent in 2009. For low-income students, scores have increase in reading from 54.9 percent in 2004 to 61.9 percent in 2009, and in math from 59.3 percent in 2004 to 72.6 percent in 2009.

Educators are talking to legislators about the need to revamp the law, especially Illinois" take on NCLB. For high schools, all students, even special education students, must take the ACT, a college entrance exam. And even the ISAT is considered to test at least one grade level higher than the group actually being tested, said Doster.

Schools can only offer an alternative test to two percent of students and that leaves many students frustrated that they are taking a test that is beyond their capabilities.

Doster said legislators have listened to school officials, "but at this point their answer is that there is not any discussion (on changing the law as it pertains to subgroups). But they do understand that this is a flaw of the No Child Left Behind law."

The law and its unfunded mandates, Doster added, "is making school districts look like they are not doing their job in educating students, but in reality, school district employees are working harder now than they ever have."

Benson is also concerned the law is pushing the nation toward relying on standardized tests, a quick snapshot of schools, to measure success.

"We don't want to lose creativity and problem solving," she said, noting the United States is known for its innovation. "We're running toward the system that the rest of the world is running away from."

Want to learn more?

School report cards for each school district can be found at the Illinois State Board of Education Web site,, or are available from each district's office. The report cards show annual test results, as well as subgroup numbers.

The Interactive Illinois Report Card is a Web site created by Northern Illinois University that allows the user to compare school districts in Illinois and examine yearly progress by individual school districts. The Web address is

(, 815-431-4049)

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