By Anthony Brino | Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD — Illinois is hoping to join the growing number of states that are being allowed to skirt the requirements of federal education reform known as No Child Left Behind.
The deadline to ask the U.S. Department of Education for exclusion from the program is Feb. 28, and the Illinois Board of Education has approved a waiver request. The waiver would take effect immediately.
President Barack Obama announced in September that he would use his executive authority under the law to exempt states from many of its provisions — including the requirement that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014, a benchmark widely deemed impossible.
The Obama administration has granted waivers to 11 states. Twenty-eight other states, including Illinois, are applying for the waivers, which will remain in place until Congress changes NCLB or passes new federal education policy.
NCLB’s main thrust was to tie student performance to federal funding. Under NCLB, students’ standardized test scores must show improvement every year.
Under the law, if students' test scores in a school fail to improve two years in a row, the school must develop an improvement plan. If, for a third year, the school does not improve, it must offer free tutoring and other academic improvement services to students, according to NCLB legislation.
Since NCLB went in effect, the majority of Illinois schools have not met the law's benchmarks. As of last year, only 1,259 of Illinois’ 3,810 schools were meeting the law’s yearly progress requirements, said Melissa Perez, an education researcher at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, which maintains a database of state education data.
Part of the criteria for obtaining a waiver is that the state still must provide a way to assess students’ academic process from year to year, but constant progress isn’t a necessity to get federal dollars.
Illinois' education officials say its plan focuses on accountability for educators and administrators, but also offers local districts more leeway for achievement gaps.
“We’ve really outgrown NCLB,” said Monique Chism, administrator of innovations and improvement at the Illinois State Board of Education, or ISBE, who helped write the state’s waiver.
ISBE is submitting its waiver application with a plan largely focusing on measuring student readiness for college and careers and targeting underperforming schools with individualized plans to improve student performance, rather than a “one-size-fits-all” approach that NCLB now uses, Chism said.
Illinois is part of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which includes 24 states and the District of Columbia. Those assessments will be used by 2014, and will track student progress from grades 3 to 12 in math and reading, Chism said.
In addition to the college and career assessment, other tests — shorter but more frequent — will provide teachers, parents and students with almost immediate feedback, she said.
The new assessments would begin in 2014.
Accountability was another one of NCLB’s goals, and Illinois’ new plan will emphasize that, said Chism.
ISBE’s new assessments will rate schools based on a five-star system, with five being the best and one the worst.
Schools receiving low ratings will be audited by a third-party research company approved by the state. The audit will include assessments of curriculum and school finances. The district will then work with the school to put together an intervention plan, with support from the state.
“We will and we are prepared to intervene in schools and districts that continue to show that they’re not making progress,” Chism said.
Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the ISBE, said the agency does not know exactly how many schools have closed or been turned into charter schools as a result poor academic performance under NCLB.
Illinois’ new plan includes provisions for closing a persistently failing school, firing its staff or converting it to a charter school, if it remains on a watch list for five or more years.