Proposed school ratings: Scrap ISAT, close achievement gap

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Chicago Public Schools is floating a new performance policy that would abandon the ISAT, grade schools on their progress in closing the achievement gap and create a five-tier rating system rather than the three-level system currently in place.

It also would make schools accountable for having 95 percent of students tested as a way to make sure the data is accurate.

Catalyst Chicago obtained a draft dated May 24. Chief Accountability Officer John Barker emphasized that the current draft is “very preliminary.” He says the draft is currently being discussed by stakeholders and will be shared with board members later this month. He doesn’t expect it to be on the board agenda for approval until August.

The district’s performance policy is important, as ratings are used to decide which schools will be closed, turned around or be subject to some other dramatic intervention. This year, Level 1 schools—the top level—were immune from being closed, even if they were severely underutilized.

During this year’s closings process, critics said the existing performance policy is too broad. Michael Colwell, a teacher from Ericson Elementary, told the board in May that some Level 3 schools were doing better than Level 2 schools on raw ISAT scores and that there was a lot of variation within the levels.

Barker says engaging stakeholders through the process is new, as is the fact that schools will go into the school year knowing what standards they will be held to.

“A lot of time in the past, the performance policy was changed in the middle of the year,” he says.

Barker says that the thinking about a new performance policy started in October when Barbara Byrd-Bennett was named CEO.

The current draft refers to the notion of academic probation, with those schools rated 4 or 5 being identified as such. 

However, at the last board meeting, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis urged the board to stop using probation as a term, as it is commonly used in the criminal justice system. 

Barker says he and Byrd-Bennett have discussed taking that recommendation. Schools on probation lose some of their budget authority as well as the power to determine a school improvement plan.

The performance policy is important as ratings are used to decide which schools will be closed, turned around or be subject to some other dramatic intervention. This year, Level 1 schools—the top level—were immune from being closed, even if they were severely underutilized.

Also, during the school closing process, the old performance policy was criticized as being too broad. Michael Colwell, a teacher from Ericson Elementary, told the board in May that he noticed that some level 3 schools were doing better than level 2 schools on raw ISAT scores and that there was a lot of variation within the levels.

Should it be adopted, the move away from the ISAT is not surprising. Illinois is in the process of shifting to the Common Core Standards, which are more rigorous than current standards. By the 2014-2015 school year, students in Illinois will be taking a Common Core assessment called the PARCC.

The NWEA, which is a benchmark exam taken three times during a year, is more similar to the PARCC than the ISAT.

One hiccup with the new performance policy, should it be approved, is that it might take a while before it can be used to measure charter schools. Charter schools are not required to administer or report scores on the NWEA, though many of them do give it to students. When contracts are renewed, CPS could make NWEA accountability measures a requirement.

A controversial part might be the proposal to look at growth on the NWEA from spring to spring, rather than from fall to spring. In a question and answer section of the draft, it says this would reduce the chance that schools would try to “game” the policy by getting their students to do poorly on the fall test in order to show growth.

How CPS would account for mobility from one school year to the next is questionable.

In addition to additional levels, the draft performance policy takes into account more metrics than the old one. None of the current metrics single out specific groups of students, but this draft calls for one-fifth of the performance ratings be based on how well black, Latino, special education and English Language Learners perform on the NWEA and how they progressed.

There’s also a new emphasis on younger students. Because students first start taking the ISAT in third grade, the current performance measures start there. The draft calls for second grade NWEA scores to be factored in. This could spur concerns about earlier test prep.

Also, attendance of pre-kindergarten through 2nd-grade students would be its own category. Truancy, not attendance, for older students would be factored in.   

The performance policy for high schools also would have more metrics under the draft proposal. In addition to looking at success in Advanced Placement classes and International Baccalaureate programs, it would take into account the number of students that got credentials in career education programs.

Further, growth on the EPAS, standardized tests which freshmen, sophomores and juniors take, would be more important than the PSAE, which is taken in junior year.