District ‘adds value’ to performance policy

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Joining a national trend, CPS will now evaluate schools in part on the progress they make raising individual student achievement from year to year, rather than average schoolwide test scores.

The district’s new performance policy will introduce a “value-added” measure for each school, which proponents argue is a fairer way to judge schools that enroll more at-risk students who post lower average test scores but may be making strong year-to-year gains.

“We can level the playing field and make a fair comparison across all schools, even those with very different student populations,” says Kristen Burton, director of accountability for CPS. 

To get the value-added measure, CPS will compare individual students’ gains to the gains of other students across the city who have similar backgrounds; for example, test-score gains made by a student in special education, or a low-income student, will be measured against the citywide gain for other special education or low-income students.  (English mastery, gender, grade level and a student’s previous test scores also factor into the equation.)

Gains made by a student who enrolls late in the year will count only partially towards a school’s overall score.

Each school will receive a composite value-added score for comparison with district-wide marks. Schools that post significantly higher-than-average gains will earn additional points toward their accountability rating.

Officials expect to release the new performance rankings, including each school’s value-added measure, in early September. However, district officials expect little change in the number of schools on probation (based on simulations using data from previous years).

High school value-added measures will be based on students’ performance gains on the Explore, Plan and ACT exams rather than the Prairie State Achievement Exam, which high school student take just once in 11th grade.

To avoid probation and remediation, schools must rack up enough points not only from the value-added measure, but also from such performance indicators as their attendance and graduation rates.

Ahead of the state

Although the Illinois State Board of Education has been planning since 2006 to adopt a similar value-added model, Chicago has beaten the state to the finish line.

ISBE wants to join a federal pilot that allows states to adopt “growth model” measures of student achievement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. So far, 11 states have joined the U.S. Department of Education pilot, which gives schools credit for making progress with students but, unlike the CPS model, also requires them to meet specific achievement targets.

At this point, however, ISBE has not been able to apply for the pilot. Illinois missed the first application deadline in November 2006, in part because 35 school districts (including Chicago at the time) had yet to connect their student information systems to the state’s database of students. States must have a database for individual students to join the federal pilot, since student progress is tracked over time.

Chicago’s new IMPACT system, which keeps tabs on everything from daily attendance to standardized test results, was the last to plug into the state’s database in early 2007.

Illinois missed a second deadline to apply in December 2007, when the state was preoccupied with problems with its test for English language learners. The federal government eventually ordered ISBE to scrap the test, saying it did not meet federal standards.

The state has made some progress, however. A spokesman for ISBE notes that the latest budget includes $3 million to help districts adopt ACT preparation tests that can be used for value-added testing in high school. Some of the money will be used to reimburse districts, such as Chicago, that are already using the tests.

Ever-changing standards

Burton says CPS spent nearly two years planning for the assessment shift as part of its development of “performance management” under a grant from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. Underpinning the work, she adds, were focus groups with principals and teachers, as well as consultations with value-added experts from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin.

“We wanted to make sure we use the measures that people believe are important,” she says.

Not everyone, however, is satisfied with the district’s preparation.

Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, says the voices of parents and community groups were needlessly ignored. Also, he adds, ever-changing accountability standards complicate school improvement planning.

“How does a school really work to improve when the rules keep changing?” he contends. “This kind of policy ought to be developed with some kind of input from local school councils and school reform groups.”

Moore notes that changes to the district’s performance policy in 2007 led to a spike in the number of schools on probation—from 83 to 206. The spike further eroded the powers of local school councils, which lose control over principal hiring and budget oversight at schools on probation.

Chicago’s school performance policy has changed five times since Schools Chief Arne Duncan took over in 2001.

Burton expects future tweaks as the accountability bar rises for schools, but says the addition of value-added measures lays out a “stable, comprehensive framework” that will last for years.

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