A local superintendent uses a health analogy to explain the anticipated drop in student scores on the state's standardized tests taken earlier this month.
“Imagine if the scales were changed overnight and they lowered them,” said Elgin Area School District U-46 Superintendent José Torres. “Overnight, we haven't eaten one more piece of candy, one more slice of pizza — we would all become obese. And we haven't done anything different.”
In U-46, the number of students who are meeting or exceeding standards on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) is going to decrease by 20 to 30 percentage points — a nose-dive that will occur statewide in school districts, though not all to that degree.
The reason for the slump is a change in the way the state board of education grades the tests — students must do better to be considered “meeting” or “exceeding” standards. Harder questions also may bring scores down, and it won't be just local districts paying attention.
In addition to creating the impression that more students are failing, this year's results also may put schools in danger of sanctions at the federal level for failing to meet requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.
The goal of changing the grading scale is to get Illinois students up to par with more rigorous standards for college and career readiness. A new exam for reading and math will come out in the 2014-15 academic year, entirely tied to the more rigorous Common Core State Standards. The comparatively lax Illinois Learning Standards, unchanged since their adoption in 1997, will be replaced.
Educators across the suburbs have concerns with the changing rubric for the test that third- through eighth-graders take each year, especially because the exam itself changed, with 20 percent of questions aligned to the common core.
Marleis Trover, education department chairman at Eastern Illinois University, calls changing the grading scale and implementing a portion of the common core standards at the same time “a double whammy.”
Trover said increasing the cutoff for meeting and exceeding standards — while easing in a portion of the Common Core — will diminish authenticity of the core and create confusion within local districts.
“Again, it is the message that our schools are failing,” Trover said.
Districts are doing as much as possible to cushion the blow when results are posted. Communications efforts started in January and February, when the state board of education announced the scoring changes and rereleased last year's results under the new grading scale to give districts an idea of what to expect. For many districts, the changes are dramatic, rivaling U-46's 20-point drop.
Much of that communication will ramp up in September, when parents see the scores, and in October, when they are released to the media and the public.
“Next fall when the school report card data comes out, that's when we expect people will really be asking a lot of questions and really start paying attention to it,” said Jim Blaney, director of school and community relations at St. Charles Unit District 303.
The same is true in Des Plaines Elementary District 62, where few parents asked questions about the new scores leading up to ISAT testing March 4-15. Janice Rashid, assistant superintendent of instructional services, said there are plans for a parent informational meeting in the fall to address the changes again once parents have scores in hand.
The concern in District 62 is that the new scoring rubric comes as other changes are taking place, including the shift to Common Core State Standards, changes to teacher evaluations and decreased education funding — all at a time when poverty rates are increasing in families across the suburbs.
Rashid said the district does its best to support students academically, socially and emotionally. Teachers and administrators are also working hard to heighten the rigor of the curriculum in the switch to the Common Core, finding new materials to supplement their textbooks with the goal of ensuring students are college- and career-ready.
“We need our community and families to know we're doing good things and we're addressing this,” Rashid said. “The ISAT results will not necessarily show that.”
In Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200, the shock will be more for parents and students than teachers. Faith Dahlquist, assistant superintendent for educational services, said educators in the district have been using a stricter scoring system internally for the past couple years.
They noticed the percentage of students meeting and exceeding standards in the younger grades was significantly higher than those doing the same on standardized tests in high school. That's why, more generally, Dahlquist supports the new scoring system.
“There was already the disconnect between where the Illinois state standards were and where high school students needed to score on a more national level,” Dahlquist said.
The problem now is that the new scores and the harder test will make it difficult to say whether schools have made any progress in educating more students. Dahlquist hopes people will see this year's results as a new baseline for performance, instead of a comparison to past years.
In Community Unit District 300, Dundee Middle School Principal Joe Schumacher said it's OK that fewer students will be identified as succeeding because the scores are a reflection of a new test, not lower-performing students or teachers. Assessments are fluid, he said, and schools will adapt.
But for some educators, the concern over lower scores goes beyond perception.
The state has not received a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind requirements that still expect schools to make “adequate yearly progress.” The only measure of that progress in Illinois is how students do on the ISAT. And when the number of students meeting and exceeding standards drops this year, it will appear to the federal government — based on the scores — that the schools are failing.
Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said the state applied for a waiver but it has not been approved yet.
To Mary Zarr, assistant superintendent for curriculum in Palatine Elementary District 15, the decision to change the ISAT scoring rubric was premature without a waiver in hand.
“We have to live under that outdated guidance, which means heavy sanctions for schools that don't make adequate yearly progress in an outdated model,” Zarr said.
The state is still hopeful the waiver will come through, Fergus said. Its application includes major changes to its accountability system and a shift to a more holistic measure emphasizing student progress. But if and when the federal department of education will approve it is still an open question.
Eastern Illinois University's Trover urges accountability as more than a means to label who is failing, but as a gauge for how schools are doing.
“Testing is a measurement,” Trover said, pointing out that a stricter grading scale alone will not improve instruction. “It's only an indicator.”
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Ÿ Daily Herald Political Editor Kerry Lester contributed to this report.