New probation policy lets more schools off the hook

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Next year, it will take more than number crunching to determine which schools are placed on probation. For the first time, district officials will allow for judgment calls that will likely land fewer schools on probation.

The revised probation policy approved in March will use different criteria to rate schools. For elementary schools, the big change is that math and science test scores now weigh as heavily as reading test scores do. For high schools, freshmen and sophomore progress on standardized tests will be weighed along with juniors. And all schools will be rated on student attendance.

Critics charge that the new system still relies too heavily on test scores. But others support the revised policy for more closely scrutinizing schools that score in the middle range of the new rating system.

Those schools will be judged on additional factors, such as the quality of teaching, leadership and community partnerships. Those passing muster with their area instructional officers (AIOs) may be spared probation, at the discretion of the chief executive officer.

Such ground-level scrutiny will help the district more accurately identify the most troubled schools, explains Xavier Botana, who oversees the CPS Office of Accountability. “There isn’t a perfect way of measuring everything on a spreadsheet.”

Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, reports that her governing board, although it still objects to probation as unfairly stigmatizing, is in favor of the change. “It’s very important to principals that movement in the right direction be given credence by central office.”

CPS projects that fewer schools will land on probation under the new policy, based on calculations of this year’s data. Currently, 226 schools are on academic probation; under the new policy, only 150 of these schools would have automatically been placed on probation. Another 115 would have been referred to AIOs for review, and most would likely have gotten a pass, according to school officials.

Area 19 AIO Linda Pierzchalski says she would move four or five of high schools in her area off of probation for making “constant, steady progress.”

High standards are good, because otherwise “we would get complacent,” Pierzchalski says. But hard-working teachers get burned out when their efforts go unrewarded. “If you take [schools] off probation, it will help with motivation,” she adds.

Area 13 AIO Yvonne Womack would like to reward elementary schools in her South Side area that stand to make steady, long-term progress by focusing on teamwork, strategic planning and outside partnerships. The new system encourages schools to take such a long-term approach to school improvement rather than looking for quick-fixes to boost test scores, she says.

Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, thinks all schools should undergo a similar review to determine their probation status. “They’re acknowledging that there are better ways to evaluate schools,” she says. “They’re just refusing to use that process on the most challenged schools, which makes no sense.”

The most challenged schools are still judged by the percent of students who pass state tests, she continues. That pressures teachers to focus on kids who barely missed the mark, at the expense of the rest, she adds. “That’s educational triage.”

Barbara Radner, director of assessment at DePaul University’s School for New Learning, says the district’s new probation policy could lead to more school improvement because the criteria for probation is now alined with the new school improvement plans that schools are required to develop each year. “It’s extremely focused,” she says of the new system. “There is no question about what is important.”

Below are highlights of the new CPS probation policy.

Complicated rating system is out Schools had been sorted into six performance categories—with probation schools at the bottom and “schools of distinction” on top. Now schools are either on probation or they’re not.

Eight-point rating system is in Schools earn one point for each of four performance goals. They also earn up to four additional points for making progress on each goal. (See related chart.) Three points or less lands a school on probation; six points or more gets them off. Those in the middle with four or five points may fall into either category at the district’s discretion.

Probation time is curbed Under the old policy, schools that landed on probation stayed there for at least two years, even if they improved the second year. Now a school’s status will be reviewed annually. The only exception is for schools like Sherman in New City that are “reconstituted,” meaning that they remain open but the staff is replaced. Those schools will stay on probation for at least five years, allowing central office to maintain control over the school’s budget and principal selection. Berry of the Principals Association argues that the probation stigma will ward off “bright and talented young teachers.”

Student attendance counts Absent from the old policy, attendance will now count for 25 percent of a school’s accountability score. Higher student attendance leads to better performance across the board on standardized tests, course credits earned and high school graduation, explains Botana.

Science and math count more The new system gives equal weight to three state tests—reading, math and science—administered in elementary school. Those tests count for 75 percent of an elementary school’s accountability score. (Under the old system, a school could avoid probation with a high reading test score on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, regardless of its performance on the three state tests.) Science had been a low-priority at many elementary schools, but the new policy should remedy that, says Womack.

Freshmen, sophomore progress counts Previously, only juniors’ scores on the Prairie State Achievement Exams—the only state tests administered to high school students—counted toward probation. Now schools will also be judged on whether individual students make the average national gain on a series of tests leading up to the Prairie State, a portion of which counts toward college admission.

Adequate yearly progress is dropped Schools had been judged on whether they made “adequate yearly progress” on state tests as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. (That law set the goal of having all students meet state standards on reading and math tests by 2014.) But the measurement failed to distinguish between schools that missed the target by a point for one subgroup, such as special education students, and those that performed poorly across the board, according to Botana.

Holding steady matters Before, low-performing schools could escape probation only by substantially raising test scores. Now they can earn points by maintaining test scores or attendance, compared to their previous three-year average. The idea is to zero in on the most troubled schools, explains Daniel Bugler, chief accountability officer. “Our aspirations for schools are far higher than the standards that we are setting,” he adds. “We’re defining the minimum level of performance.”

To contact Elizabeth Duffrin, call (312) 673-3879 or e-mail duffrin@catalyst-chicago.org.