The state’s new report cards for public schools around Illinois, released Tuesday, pose a conundrum for parents of kids at Chicago Public Schools, which unveiled its own ratings last week: Which metric should they believe?

CPS, for example, gave its highest rating — Level 1+ — to 185 schools — but 30 of those, the Illinois State Board of Education says, are actually “underperforming.” Three others, including Moos Elementary in Logan Square, the board says, are in a group of the “lowest performing” schools in the state.

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Meanwhile, two Chicago charter schools the state praised as “commendable” earned CPS’ lowest rating, including the Montessori School of Englewood, which was added last week to a charter warning list for a poor academic track record. The school has a year to improve on its Level 3 rating or risk closure.

Other schools in Chicago that the state placed in a single group rated “commendable” — which were hailed as having no underperforming student groups — received a range of ratings under the CPS grading system, from lowest to second best.

Causing confusion?

The contradictions come as the state board tries to make information about Illinois’ 866 public school districts easier to read and understand on its annual report cards. But an analysis by the Chicago Sun-Times finds the state’s new designations could actually cause more confusion for Chicago families.

This year, the state revealed new labels for schools — required under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act — that take into account a wide range of factors to inform parents and taxpayers of a school’s quality. Following the lead of CPS, the state is considering how well student scores on standardized tests improve over time instead of just looking at them during a single year. Both systems also look at attendance and school culture.

Such labels matter because not only can CPS and the state take action against a school based on them, but parents often use them to help decide where to send their kids to school or even what neighborhood or city to live in.

Based on 2017-18 data, the state announced that of Illinois’ 3,988 public schools, 376 are in the top 10 percent statewide and are now considered exemplary; 2,636 are commendable; 561 are underperforming and 205 are lowest performing, in the state’s bottom 5 percent. The rest weren’t rated.

State schools superintendent Tony Smith called the designations “in fact, evidence-based factual statements.”

But in Chicago, the confusion comes because the state report cards don’t line up with CPS’ five-level ratings.

As LaTanya McDade, CPS chief education officer, pointed out, “There’s a huge difference here, and we’re prepared to call those differences out.”

Accounting for the differences

Different standardized tests account for one of the differences. Montessori principal Rita Nolan said her students improved on the PARCC test the state uses, but not on the NWEA test used by CPS.

Each agency also puts different weights on the result, and the state’s system makes comparisons between schools.

“For the state, we have to also consider the way they’re coming up with their designation, forcing a curve,” McDade said. “So no matter how high performing your school is, there’s always going to be the lowest five percent.” CPS ratings are based on set metrics so there’s no limit on how many schools can earn top ratings.

That comparison is the point, ISBE’s Smith said, because among similar populations it can reveal “you either are or are not getting the very best opportunity for your child.”

He added that the state won’t punish schools with lower designations, but will instead send extra help to them.

The focus on equity is something to celebrate, McDade said: “Additional finances to support those subgroups is a positive. We’ll take full advantage of that.”

Still, both sets of ratings have similar drawbacks in that they don’t give a complete picture of a school, critics say.

“All performance metrics are reductive, trying to be one-size-fits-all, and schools pose different shapes,” said Alexios Rosario-Moore of Generation All, a group that advocates for neighborhood high schools.

Of four CPS elementary schools rated Level 1+ that secured the state’s top designation, two are neighborhood elementary schools, Columbus Elementary School in the Ukrainian Village, and Haines Elementary School in Chinatown. Notably missing from the state’s top schools are all but one Level 1+ selective elementary school that many parents in the city clamor to test their kids into.

Columbus likely made the cut because its Hispanic students, one of the state’s priority student groups, did well on PARCC, improving scores from the year before, veteran principal Wendy Oleksy said.

“We take social emotional learning very seriously,” with daily meditation three times a day and kids explicitly taught how to deal with feelings, she said. “Kids take ownership of what are the expectations are for school whether for behavior or academics. It can’t just be about academics.”