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With NCLB nearing its final year, districts using its lessons to move forward

Local school officials look forward to the possibility of a more accurate measurement of student progress as the No Child Left Behind Act nears its last year – but said they will use the lessons and improvements brought forward by the act.

Passed in 2001 and signed into law by former President George W. Bush, NCLB aimed to have 100 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards by the 2013-14 school year.

School districts are measured through the Adequate Yearly Progress, referred to as AYP, of their students. That percent applies not just to the school as a whole but to nine subgroups within the school, which include those based on race, whether the students have a disability and whether the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

This year, 92.5 percent of students – as a whole and within each subgroup – had to meet or exceed the reading and math standards set by the state, up from 85 percent of students last year.

In Morris, Nettle Creek Community Consolidated School District 24c and Morris Community High School District 101 were the only school districts to meet AYP for 2013. Morris High School did not meet the 92.5 percent, but met it based on the Safe Harbor Targets, which means it exceeded the previous year’s scores by 10 percent.

Morris’ other public school districts, as well as the Minooka, Coal City and Gardner school districts, did not meet AYP this year, according to the Illinois Report Card,

In the state, about 7 percent of the 863 school districts made AYP, compared to about 18 percent last year.

“One of the downfalls of No Child Left Behind has been AYP doesn’t measure student growth over time. It’s a snapshot of different students at some point in time,” said Pat Halloran, superintendent of Morris Community High School.

Before this year’s safe harbor accomplishment, Morris High School had not made AYP since the 2006-07 school year.

Included in the criticisms is the unrealistic targets, Halloran said. The percentage increases forced high schools to focus on standardized test scores as opposed to providing a well-rounded education.

“In my experience, [AYP] created a false sense of failure for a small portion of the community,” Halloran said.

Despite the school district’s student improvement over time, the state focused on the results of one test that compared students of different learning capabilities as a group.

One of the positives of NCLB for Morris High School was forcing it to create a systemic approach to school improvement, Halloran said. It created its Rising Star School Leadership Team of administration, teachers, school board members and parents to address what needs improvement at the school, how to accomplish it and holding the school accountable.

It also made schools use all its test data to measure academic growth over students’ educational careers. Overall, this process has created an increased academic rigor schoolwide.

Coal City Community Unit School District 1 failed as a district the last three years, but up until 2011 only its high school failed AYP, and only for one year. Its other three measured schools were meeting AYP until 2012.

Superintendent Kent Bugg said one of the key difficulties with AYP was how it required districts to handle students with special needs.

“No Child Left Behind and the threat of AYP forced districts to treat special needs students as college-bound students and for some that was good, but for some it wasn’t,” Bugg said. “We couldn’t meet all their needs, which are not just academically, but social needs and physical needs to get them prepared for living on their own.”

In addition for regular-education students, other important subjects such as fine arts, social studies and even science were put to the back burner in order to put more focus on improving students’ math and reading scores on standardized tests, Bugg said. This sacrificed some life skills they would have learned.

“We were not creating as well-rounded of a student as we did prior to this because there just is not enough hours in a day,” he said.

But because of NCLB, Coal City school district did major re-evaluating early on and applied positive changes, he said. The district started an education summit gathering administrators and teachers together to brainstorm ideas and improvements to not only meet the AYP requirements, but improve overall.

Some of the outcomes included changing the graduation requirements, adding full-day kindergarten and the creation of the early childhood center.

Looking forward

As NCLB’s life nears its end, Illinois’ request for extension to reach the 100 percent goal is still pending and educators wait for word on new assessments.

Illinois is one of the 19 states in the country participating in the development of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, assessment system aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

PARCC is developing a common set of K-12 assessments in English and math anchored in what it takes to be ready for college and careers, according to PARCC assessments are set to be ready during the 2014-15 school year.

While many local school districts have already started aligning curriculum to common core, what will make up the measurement system has not yet been defined.

“We’re in a transitional period, in some ways the unknown is disconcerting,” said Halloran, whose district is one of the schools participating in the pilot program for PARCC. It is more growth-based and requires testing online, according to the Illinois State Board of Education’s website.

The question for high schools, and what Halloran described as a must, is the inclusion of the ACT. Illinois requires all juniors to take the ACT, which is used by many high schools as a local assessment.

What’s exciting about PARCC being aligned with the common core is the focus on critical thinking and problem solving again, Bugg said.

“It’s a whole different thought process and I think it is a step in the right direction,” he said.

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