EDITORIAL: What Chicago parents need to know about those weird school ratings

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Don’t panic if your school was one of dozens that the Chicago Public Schools rate as top-notch but the state ranks at the bottom of the barrel.

This year, for the first time, the Illinois State Board of Education gave consumer-friendly ratings to individual schools — designating them as “exemplary,” “commendable,” “underperforming,” or “lowest performing” — based on year-by-year improvement in test scores and other criteria. That’s a big plus for parents in suburban Chicago and the rest of Illinois, who now have a new tool to help them judge whether their child’s current school is the best choice, or if a different school across town or in another suburb would be a better option. 

EDITORIAL

CPS parents have had the district’s ratings to rely on for a number of years, to help them choose the best school option within Chicago. The state’s ratings now can help them decide whether the idea of “moving to the suburbs for a better school” truly makes sense.

But some CPS parents likely were confused when they saw the new state ratings side-by-side with the ratings given by CPS. And no wonder: As reporter Lauren FitzPatrick pointed out in a story this week, 33 Level 1+ schools — the highest level in CPS— landed on the state’s “underperforming” or “lowest performing” list.

But confusion should not lead to alarm. A few points to keep in mind:

First, remember there’s a bright side: Schools designated as underperforming or lowest-performing will get extra financial help to improve. In the past, schools with low test scores were placed on an academic “watch list,” with the ultimate threat of closure, and simply told to come up with action plans to improve. But they didn’t get immediate financial or technical support to do so.

Kudos to ISBE for shifting the paradigm here. Given the state’s historic underfunding of education, it’s only fair to give schools additional help to teach children who are lagging behind their peers. Illinois has only now begun to tackle, with a new state aid formula, the huge funding disparities between wealthier and lower-income school districts.

A second point to remember: ISBE and CPS are, to a large degree, measuring schools on very different criteria. So it’s no wonder that schools sometimes don’t align on a single spectrum. 

ISBE, for example, rates schools partly on chronic absenteeism, defined as the number of students who miss 10 percent or more of the school year. So any CPS school with a lot of chronically absent students — and there are plenty of such schools — will look worse on the state ratings than on CPS rankings.

On the flip side, Chicago gives parents a more complete picture on high schools, judging schools on their graduates’ college enrollment and college persistence rates. ISBE looks only at high school graduation rates.

Another huge difference: standardized tests.

ISBE’s elementary school ratings use a controversial test that all but a handful of states have scrapped in recent years. The PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) test was launched in 2010 in 26 states; only six states and the District of Columbia still use it.

The PARCC test has a high failure rate, which is one reason some educators panned it and states scrapped it. (Illinois has already dumped the high school PARCC, and plans to revise the current PARCC exam for elementary schools in the coming years.)

CPS’ ratings incorporate a different test that is widely used across the country and allows for national comparisons, the NWEA. Teachers like the NWEA; it’s shorter and they get access to students’ scores quickly, so they can adapt their teaching if students aren’t learning certain concepts.

Whatever the pluses and minuses of the PARCC versus the NWEA, parents should be clear: Take with a grain of salt any comparisons between ratings systems that rely on very different criteria and tests.

The bottom line: Don’t judge a school solely on any one rating. Like our kids, we’ve got to do all our homework.

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