Robert Green coached track before he was superintendent of Collinsville schools -- and he compares trying to help schools satisfy No Child Left Behind to facing the high jump.
"Whoever crafted No Child Left Behind had no clue about student growth," Green said. "They set an arbitrary mark, just like saying, 'Every child is going to high jump 7 feet by 2014. How realistic is that?"
It's been a decade since implementation of No Child Left Behind, the federal legislation that required all schools to test their students and meet certain standards or face consequences from the government.
Now one of its most controversial deadlines is looming: the requirement that all students in all schools must meet or exceed state standards on standardized tests by 2014.
The law set ever-increasing standards for each school, raising the bar each year with the ultimate goal of 100 percent by 2014.
At the time, it was loudly criticized as an unachievable goal: not every student will be able to pass the test, educators said. A decade later, 82 percent of Illinois districts and 66 percent of schools have not been able to keep up with the increasing standards, even as scores have risen over the years.
And now the rules are changing again. Next year, Illinois will change the scoring on the elementary tests. The following year, a new test for grades 3-11 will be introduced. And in Washington, legislators debate what changes should be made when the act comes up for reauthorization.
"We are truly in a transition period in education, as we move away from the punitive and one-size-fits-all nature of No Child Left Behind and into a system that will provide more comprehensive and useful information for parents, educators and students themselves about each child's progress over time," said Illinois State Superintendent Christopher Koch.
So what can be learned from the No Child Left Behind experiment, both positive and negative? Most educators in the metro-east agree on one thing: It made them pay attention to the students who typically fell through the cracks.
No Child Left Behind required improvement not only for schools as a whole, but in each particular demographic group. It calculated scores for all students as well as those of a particular race, gender, low-income family, special needs and disabilities, migrant families, limited-English-speaking and other demographics -- meaning that one child could conceivably affect scores in multiple subgroups.
Nearly every educator interviewed said it forced them to focus on these high-risk groups and make sure those who needed more help got it.
"It recognized that kids who come from a disadvantaged home or have a disability... had an achievement gap," said Triad Superintendent Leigh Lewis. "We were not being equal in delivering education and making sure they had every opportunity."
Belleville District 201 Superintendent Jeff Dozier agreed, saying it "wasn't entirely negative."
"It put out goals that forced all of us as educators to evaluate the things we're doing and try to make improvements to meet the kids' needs," Dozier said.
But the overall goal of every child passing the test was ultimately impossible, they said, and set benchmarks that ensured eventually every school would be classified as failing, regardless of how much progress they made.
"Rather than recognizing that it was a lofty goal that was unachievable, we have put really good schools in bad positions by putting them in academic warning and labeling them as failing," Dozier said. "That one measurement cannot give an accurate picture of a school."
Lebanon High School, for example, saw only 45.3 percent of its students meeting or exceeding state standards on the PSAE test in 2007. Five years later it is 75 percent -- the highest score in Madison or St. Clair county. Lebanon even had passing scores in all its subgroups -- but still it failed to make adequate yearly progress and is classified as a "failing" school because its graduation rate isn't high enough.
Likewise the other top high schools, O'Fallon and Edwardsville, both failed to make adequate yearly progress under the law despite the second and third-highest scores in the area because of the scores of subgroups.
In all, only 11 Illinois high schools made adequate yearly progress in 2012.
Lewis said that subgroup data was very helpful for districts to focus their resources on kids who needed it.
"I believe all kids can learn," Lewis said. "In no way do I ever think that (kids in subgroups) are not an important part of accountability. While it's frustration on our end, we have to pay close attention to those subgroups."
But the punitive aspect and labeling schools as "failing" frustrates local educators.
Lebanon Superintendent Patrick Keeney said he hoped officials would look at a model comparing each school on its progress from the year before, rather than an arbitrary standard that all schools must make.
"We need to compare Lebanon to Lebanon last year, and showing our growth every year," Keeney said. "We're going to keep striving to do better and move forward."
Lewis said punishing schools only takes away resources from the kids who need it the most.
"All kids learn differently," she said. "Some kids will learn with what we do and others won't... It's not that we shouldn't do everything we can to demonstrate accountability, but it's not easy to show the public how well we're doing. It's not just about one score."
No Child Left Behind required Belleville District 118 to offer school choice at two schools this year, which Assistant Superintendent Ryan Boike said meant increased costs that have to be covered from their budget -- even if the students don't choose to actually leave the school. There are required notifications and meetings, plus after-school tutoring, covering costs for outside agencies to work with kids and other costs.
"We did a good job meeting the standards until the last couple of years," Boike said. "Now we're getting to the point in the program where we're going to see a whole lot of schools not able to meet the standards."
Koch said No Child Left Behind is "no longer helping in terms of the conversation in how to improve schools." He said labeling a school as "failing" because of one subgroup -- particularly the special-education subgroup, which is often the only reason a school fails -- is not helpful.
"Folks nationally realized this wasn't an attainable law, and it needed to be revised," Koch said. "It caused us to negatively label schools even when they were making progress ... It was well-intended, but it certainly needs to be revamped in a more meaningful way."
Beginning next year, the ISAT test scoring will be changed and everyone's scores are expected drop. Lewis believes this is an unnecessary change, given that the whole test will be scrapped the following year.
"I don't see how that helps, other than being confusing to the district and parents about how well we're doing," she said. "It seems to me that when we change to PARCC in 2014, that's the time to change."
Koch said school officials believe it is important to "better align" the ISAT test taken by elementary students with the PSAE test taken by high-schoolers. "We must raise our expectations at the elementary level so that students are on track to leave high school prepared to succeed in the work force, career and daily life," he said.
In 2014-15, Illinois and 22 other states will begin using the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, an assessment given at multiple times throughout the year. It is still in development, but early indications have been that it will measure an individual student's growth from year to year, rather than comparing this year's fourth grade to last year's fourth grade.
"It's a completely different type of test," Lewis said.
Koch said it is a new accountability system that will show schools are expected to continue making progress, but will not be penalized if they aren't immediately proficient in a year or two. "It will help us look at other means of showing how schools are doing," he said.
Likewise, the state is changing the standards on which the tests are based, which means everything has to change to match what the state is calling "Common Core Standards."
There are a lot of unknowns in this two-year transition, educators said. But they are hopeful a new approach will help give a better picture of how schools are actually doing.
"Every kid doesn't start at the same spot, even in one school," Dozier said. "What we should be measuring is growth. You don't want everyone in the same spot; you'd be aiming for 'average.' Growth is what's important ... data on how one student grew from the beginning of the school year to the end."
Green said he thinks testing throughout the year will help schools adapt more quickly, rather than an annual "snapshot" of how a school is performing. "They (need to) get the notion to look at where students are and measure their growth, instead of making everyone high jump at 7 feet," he said. "Sometimes economics, culture and language barriers enter into it. Kids start out at different places."
And most educators hope the tag of "failing" schools will go away in the new models.
"What has happened is that the federal government has tarnished the reputation of public education," Boike said. "There are a lot of good teachers and administrators out there who are working hard to do a good job. But because 100 percent of students aren't meeting the nearly impossible standards they have set, they label schools as failures. Would we like to see it go away tomorrow? Certainly. But do we think that's what's going to happen? Not at all."
News-Democrat reporter Scott Wuerz contributed to this story. Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org.