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All hail the “Exemplary” school? - Decoding ISBE school Summative Designations

River Forest District 90 administrators asked residents “to please explore the report card” for themselves this time around, and postponed sharing academic measures until a Monday evening board of education meeting on November 20, 2023. Instead, administrators shared Illinois State Board of Education Summative Designations, something most residents don’t understand, and something not shared when all three of its schools landed in the Commendable category of ISBE’s Summative Designations in 2019.


The decline coincided with a quiet swallowing of the PILL, policy-induced learning loss, and the rollout of “progressive” curricula and instructional practices.


Administrators are celebrating now though, wrote Superintendent Ed Condon in his October 30th letter to District 90 families - “We celebrate these Summative Designations because of what they represent - extraordinary teaching and learning across our school community.”


A question…what do these Summative Designations represent? E3 can help and you might be surprised.


What is an ISBE Summative Designation?


Summative Designations are used by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to compare Illinois schools to other Illinois schools, mainly for the purposes of funding and as a standard of comparison for residents, administrators, and policymakers. Designations, from best to worst, are as follows: Exemplary, Commendable, Targeted, Comprehensive, and Intensive. ISBE shares that “Targeted, Comprehensive, and Intensive schools receive additional funding and supports to build local capacity and improve student outcomes.”


Summative Designations (SD) are the result of weighted calculations of Academic (75%) and School Quality and Student Success (25%) indicators. Academic indicators and their individual weights include:


1. English Language Arts Growth: 25%

2. Math Growth: 25%

3. English Language Arts Proficiency: 7.5%

4. Math Proficiency: 7.5%

5. Science Proficiency: 5%

6. English Learner Progress to Proficiency: 5%


School Quality and Student Success indicators and their weight include:


1. Chronic Absenteeism: 20%

2. Climate Survey: 5%


TAKEAWAY - The SD system relies on weighted school characteristics to enable coarse comparisons. More of the weight is on academics (75%), although only 15% of the weight is on proficiency, or whether students are performing at grade level. Is there room for fuzzy math in the SD rating system? Probably, as it seems full points are awarded for Math Proficiency even when 41% of Roosevelt Middle School students are below grade level. A substantial number of changes were made in 2022 to buoy Summative Designations for schools in decline.


Growth in math and English language arts receives the most weight (50%); however, all Illinois schools are automatically given half of the possible points because of “Illinois’ commitment to fairness and equity”.


What do I learn from my school’s Summative Designation?


Summative Designations are a system for comparison; however, it’s important to know your public school is being compared to all other Illinois public schools using a coarse scale with almost as much weight on absenteeism as there is for academic achievement.


Further, the system is insensitive because it lacks a fixed benchmark. Schools can be in decline, not preparing children and still, the system will designate 10% of IL schools Exemplary regardless of academic achievement. ISBE describes “By design, there will always be Exemplary and Comprehensive Support schools, as these are the top performing 10% and lowest performing 5% of schools.


A look at the benchmark might say something about the intellectual honesty of using only Summative Designations to describe school performance.


In 2023 there are 3,840 public schools in Illinois spread across 852 school districts. Enrollment is 1.9M students with 49% of students under the category of Low Income. Fifteen percent of all students have an Individual Education Plan and 15% are considered English Language Learners. Chronic Absenteeism occurs 28% of the time among all IL schools. There are 134,897 full time teachers earning an average annual salary of $73,916, and the State average expenditure per pupil in 2022 was $28,588.

The 2023 Illinois averages were 35% and 27% proficiency in English language arts and Math, respectively. Said a different way, 65% and 73% of IL students can’t do the work expected of them in their current grade.


In 2023, 68.4% and 73.3% of Illinois 11th graders did not meet the standards for college readiness based on the SAT.


The academic gap between low-income and non-low-income students increased 2021 to 2023, with non-low-income students outperforming low-income students by 30% and 29% for English language arts and math, respectively.


In 2023, the distribution of Summative Designations among all Illinois schools is as follows:

Exemplary – 369 schools

Commendable – 2,645 schools

Targeted – 317

Comprehensive – 242

Intensive – 77


The National Education Association produces a report that ranks all states on many common input and output factors, stopping short of ranking states for overall quality of public education. Suffice to say, Illinoisans can look up to many other states for help.


TAKEAWAY – While most families are not hoping for below grade level education, the SD system uses below grade level benchmarks to produce ratings. Further, since ISBE will always call the top 10% Exemplary regardless of student outcome, it is insensitive actual achievement and shifts in Illinois standing nationally.


A look at what River Forest District 90 is celebrating.


2023 River Forest District 90 Summative Designations


Lincoln Elementary, Exemplary, 75% and 61% proficiency in ELA and Math, respectively.



Willard Elementary, Exemplary, 69% and 65% proficiency in ELA and Math, respectively.



Roosevelt Middle School, Commendable, 64% and 59% proficiency in ELA and Math, respectively.


(Images taken from 2023 ISBE report card)

Exemplary schools are better than Commendable schools, and this is something worth noting regardless of whether schools rise or fall on the scale. However, the SD system has flaws that could convey a false sense of security, especially when ratings are used to characterize academics.


A much more effective method of describing school success, and something parents and families consider in where they live, is reporting academic results relative to other nearby school districts.


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