Half of Illinois high schoolers not reading, solving math problems at grade level

By Benjamin Yount
Illinois Statehouse News

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Half of Illinois’ high school students cannot read or solve math problems at grade level, but state school leaders are not blaming students or teachers.

They are blaming the federal program No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Illinois State Superintendent Chris Koch and State Board of Education Chairman Gery Chico unveiled Oct. 20 the dismal results from last spring’s standardized tests.

Under NCLB guidelines, 85 percent of students must be proficient in reading and math by 2011. The bar is raised to 100 percent by 2014. These same percentages apply to science for high-schoolers.

Students in third through eighth grades, as well as 11th grade, take standardized tests to measure their adequate yearly progress in reading, math and science.

This past year, about half of Illinois’ 11th-graders, who take the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE), scored at or above the 85 percent benchmark:

• 51 percent in reading and math; and

• 49 percent in science.

In all, 656 of Illinois’ 666 public high schools failed to meet NCLB requirements.

Students in third through eighth grades, overall, scored below the 85 percent benchmark, except for the following student groups, who scored at or above the mark:

• 85 percent of eighth-graders in reading;

• 86 percent of eighth-graders in math; and

• 87 percent of fourth-graders in math.

Students in third through eighth grade take the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT). In all,1,892 of the state’s 3,231 elementary and middle schools did not meet the federal guidelines.

Overall, 65 percent of Illinois’ 4,321 schools failed to meet the federal standards. Last year, 51 percent of schools did not progress.

Chico said the rise in failure rates indicates that NCLB has “lost its usefulness.”

The motives were good; the ideas were good. But like a lot of things over time, it … is now creating problems for us,” said Chico.

Chico said NCLB is “improperly labeling” students and schools as failing, because schools that are close to meeting the benchmark are still classified as missing the mark.

Illinois is seeking a federal waiver from the NCLB requirement that all students must pass standardized reading and math proficiency tests by 2014. President Barack Obama recently said the federal government would agree to waivers, if the states were to be held more accountable for whatever educational progress students and schools actually achieved.

We all kinda knew that the bar that was being set, every year, that level was going up to a point that no one can reach it,” said Chico.

But Kock said NCLB ignores progress in favor of results.

If you’re making improvements in one, two, or three grade levels, that’s a great thing,” said Koch. “Right now in this system, you don’t get credit for that. If we were given credit for that, we’d be seeing and recognizing a lot of schools for the improvements they are authentically making on behalf of students.”

Robin Steans, executive director of the education advocacy group Advance Illinois, said parents need to monitor their child’s progress.

At the end of the day, parents care most about what is going on with their children,” said Steans. “Parents need to be involved to make sure your children are really where they should be.”

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