From Chicago Tribune by Diane Rado:
Under a dramatic new approach to rating public schools, Illinois students of different backgrounds no longer will be held to the same standards with Latinos and blacks, low-income children and other groups having lower targets than whites for passing state exams, the Tribune has found.

In reading, for example, 85 percent of white third- through eighth-grade students statewide will be expected to pass state tests by 2019, compared with about 73 percent for Latinos and 70 percent for black students, an analysis of state and federal records shows.

The concept is part of a fundamental and, according to critics, troubling shift in how public schools and students will be judged after the federal government recently allowed Illinois to abandon unpopular requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

A key NCLB measure long considered unreachable that 100 percent of students must pass state exams will be eliminated.

But the complex new approach of different standards for different groups is troubling to civil rights activists, who are not convinced that school districts will be held accountable for failing to educate minority students, and to some local educators, who say the lowered expectations will send a negative message to students.

"You're potentially sending a message that it's OK for some kids to not do as well," said Timothy Truesdale, assistant superintendent in Cicero's Morton High School District 201, where almost all students are Latino and low-income, and test scores have been dismal for years.

"We want our students to be proficient," Truesdale said.

In a recent college-level calculus class at Morton East, Latino students in white and khaki uniforms were poring over equations to prepare for their Advanced Placement exam this month the culmination of one of the toughest math courses any high school can offer.

"You push them, and they respond," math teacher Barbara Kane said of her students. In the past several years, Morton East has been pushing hundreds more students into AP, hoping to challenge kids and boost achievement.

State officials say they are recognizing that student groups are starting out at different levels, and that low performers will be pushed to do more to catch up to higher-achieving peers.

They also stressed that different passing targets for groups should not be confused with what students have to score individually to pass a state exam. All children need the same score to pass.

"A key point here is that we are setting more aggressive targets for underperforming groups that will reduce achievement gaps," said State School Superintendent Chris Koch. "It is certainly better than the prior model of everybody is proficient by a particular year, which clearly hasn't worked."

Under the new rating system, which will be rolled out in 2014-15, the state also is creating a color-coded system available on the state's "report card" website that will tell parents at a glance how well schools are doing in a variety of categories. Green is good, and yellow is OK. Red warrants immediate attention.

Scores on state exam day will no longer define a school. Instead, schools will be rated on a variety of measures, including graduation rates, minority performance, state exam scores and progress in improving scores. Each major category will earn points from zero to 100 and, ultimately, a color designed to signal strengths and weaknesses.

The U.S. Department of Education approved the state's overhaul last month after granting Illinois a waiver from key provisions of NCLB, a federal effort to transform schools and boost achievement for students of all backgrounds.

Class of 2014 graduates spent their entire school careers under NCLB, an era of expanded state testing that demanded an increasing percentage of students of all races and backgrounds pass annual state exams. For this spring's testing, 100 percent of students must pass.

Schools are labeled failures when too many students flunk, and by 2013, almost 85 percent of Illinois schools had received failing labels, including many of the state's premier high schools.

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