No Child Left Behind 10 years later

Susan Waynick’s two sons excelled at their neighborhood school where positive experiences with teachers were the norm and she captained the PTA.

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Keep learning

I keep my kids’ brains active over the summer to avoid summer
slump. They read every day and I give math worksheets. My daughter
also writes to a pen pal and every Monday is Science Day where we
do an experiment together.
Nicole Foster, Chicago

We have “homework” each day after camp with fun age appropriate
workbooks. Kiddo feels confident and stays in the habit of
learning. Plus it provides downtime from hot outdoor
Pamela Gonzalez, Chicago

Even though the kids are on vacation, keep them busy still with
writing and number activities so that they can keep up the habit of
doing “school” work.  
Maria Araque, Chicago

We play school. We read, write and do math.
Jacki Tonyan, Trevor, Wis.

Then the school, Richmond Elementary School in St. Charles, missed the mark on test scores and was deemed failing for not making Adequate Yearly Progress, as set by federal No Child Left Behind standards.

When it failed in consecutive years, Waynick and other families had a choice: Stay or move to a school that wasn’t failing. While some parents opted to switch schools, the Waynick family stayed.

“His needs were being met,” Waynick says about her younger son. “At the end of the day, you have to do what’s best for your children.”

Giving all children the best shot at a good education is what NCLB set out to do after it became law a decade ago during the Bush Administration. It created a new system to measure school performance, while raising the bar gradually to ensure a greater number of students were hitting the mark.

By the 2013-14 school year, every school in Illinois will be expected to have all of its students meeting or exceeding minimum Illinois Learning Standards.

Yet, so far, more and more schools are failing.

In Illinois, where 2,548 schools failed to make AYP in the 2010-11 school year, state education officials sought a waiver to, among other things, establish a new learning standard and a better process for assessing student success. The goal: To reduce by half the percentage of all students not making the grade.

“The unrealistic and punitive aspects of NCLB have made it counterproductive. Every year that NCLB moves forward with its unattainable goals more schools are deemed to be failing, so much so that this year only eight high schools in Illinois were deemed to have made ‘adequate progress,'” ISBE officials stated in an explanation for seeking a waiver.

The changing education landscape in Illinois is tied to the roll out of Common Core curriculum, new tests which will focus more on applying knowledge instead of recitation of information and multiple methods to assess success and shrink achievement gaps, according to State Board of Education spokesman Matt Vanover.

As a transitional period emerges on the horizon, the legacy of testing and school choice remain two of the most important parts of the NCLB decade for parents.

High-stakes testing

The number most often talked about, and the one parents typically have been left to use for understanding the big picture at their school, has been adequate yearly progress. It is the percentage of students taking the Illinois Standard Achievement Tests at different grade levels who are meeting or exceeding state standards. The AYP target has risen from 40 percent in 2003 to 92.5 in 2012.

The 100 percent AYP goal has been maligned for years as an unattainable target, but districts and schools continued to work toward improved test scores and making AYP gains, even if in smaller increments.

The side effect was the idea of “high-stakes testing” and claims that educators were simply teaching to the test, according to Northern Illinois University professor J.D. Bowers, who oversees the school’s teacher certification program.

 "We ended up with an overemphasis on tests," Bowers says.

AYP numbers might be good for bragging rights if your school is beating the target, but aren’t a strong measurement for what’s happening in a school, Bowers says.

With the number of schools missing AYP increasing every year since the 2005-06 school year, more and more schools are now considered failing. Bowers doesn’t think that should necessarily discourage parents.

“Good things are happening in schools with bad numbers,” he says.

Waynick says test scores don’t tell the whole story. She acknowledges Richmond was labeled by some when it became the lone failing school in a generally well-to-do suburb with a strong school district. Richmond has the district’s most diverse mix of students, she says.

“If you walk the halls of Richmond, it’s anything but failing. It’s a place where children are celebrated,” she says.

Still, if the numbers don’t hit AYP targets in two consecutive years, students can change schools. In 2010-11, nearly 650,000 students statewide were eligible to change schools (compared to about 115,000 in 2005-06).

School choice: A tale of two decisions

Despite it being a relatively quick decision for Waynick’s family to stick with Richmond Elementary School, she understood the wide range of opinions and outcomes surrounding school choice.

She recalls a PTA meeting in her living room where the issue was discussed. A good history at Richmond meant one thing to Waynick, but she also hoped to see the school “turn it around.”

Julie Wright, a single mother with two sons in Rolling Meadows, was less optimistic when she noticed her boys’ differing experiences going through the same grade school at two different times. Her older son, Brendan, excelled at Kimball Hill Elementary School and moved on to advance placement classes for fifth and sixth grade at Central Road School.

Wright initially resisted moving Brendan to Central Road a couple of year earlier because she wanted him to keep friends and avoid uprooting him too early.

Wright’s younger son, Jacob, mirrors his brother very closely in their academic prowess, Wright says. He tested well while at Kimball Hill and was on track for advance placement at Central Road.

“By the third grade, I started noticing things going downhill,” Wright says, referring to academics and social factors. “Jacob’s test scores started to drop, significantly in the language area.”

Wright soon learned Kimball Hill was failing. She was all for moving Jacob to another school for fourth grade in 2011-12.

 "It has been an absolutely wonderful move all around. No regrets."

Bowers questions what school choice has really accomplished when, in some instances, no alternatives are available for students in failing schools. Other education officials point out that many times the students opting to leave a failing school are not the ones most in need of help.

 So, what's a parent to do?

Bowers thinks it’s something they should be doing no matter their school situation-be involved. He puts high value on the amount of time parents invest in their child’s education, everything from emailing teachers and principals to reading together at home.

 "A parent can compensate for their child's teacher's weaknesses," he says.

Bowers believes parents need to look beyond their child’s classroom to have an overall perspective on the school, such as learning about teachers in higher grade levels who are likely to instruct your student. Parents also should talk with each other to round out perspectives on what’s happening.

New standards, testing changes

The next chapter for students and parents in Illinois begins with the full implementation of Common Core standards in all classrooms.

Illinois joins more than 40 other states adopting the new guidelines driven by the ultimate goal of crafting college- and career-ready students, according to Vanover.

Common Core not only replaces the Illinois Learning Standards, put in place in 1997, but raises the bar on what students must know.

That means new tests, ones focused on applying knowledge instead of reciting information, will arrive for the 2014-15 school year. Additionally, the state is expected to raise the “cut score”-the passing mark-on ISATs.

Bowers finds Common Core, just like NCLB, to have the right idea at its heart-providing a good education to all-yet isn’t a fan of trying to put every student on the same page at the same time.

“We all want them to be on a level playing field,” Bowers says, “(but) intellectually, and maturity wise, we all develop differently. Common Core should not be the lowest common denominator.”

Overall, Bowers is unsure what will improve under Common Core because the mechanism of testing will remain the same. The current testing structure has led some schools to fail solely because of poor performance by sub-groups-such as special needs or low-income students, or those who do not speak English as their primary language.

While a lot of focus will be put on new curriculum and testing, Vanover suggests there’s a lot more to look at.

Among the highlights, Vanover points to a technology-based pilot project that uses an app store-like program to give students greater access to specific information tied to their classroom lessons.

 Also, student achievement and test scores will play a greater role in teacher evaluations. Only time will tell the impact on Illinois schools and their students. Dan Campana is a freelance writer and dad living in Streamwood.
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