Despite a significant drop in test scores, administrators at Fox River Grove Elementary District 3 are happy the tiny district's roughly 500 students are doing far better than the rest of the state on standardized tests.
The two-school district, like many others throughout the Fox Valley, faired poorly on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, with its composite score dipping 15.9 percentage points from the previous year, according to 2013 Illinois School Report Card data released Thursday.
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Yet Algonquin Road Elementary School third-graders are at the top of students "meeting" or "exceeding" state standards in reading and mathematics -- 80.7 percent in reading and 78.9 percent in math.
"We're excited about our scores," Superintendent Tim Mahaffy said. "Even though our scores have gone down dramatically like everyone's in the state has ... in 14 tests that we took on ISAT this year, we increased the gap versus the state in 13 of those 14 assessments. Just because our scores are dropping doesn't mean that our students are not learning more than they did the previous year."
Similarly, the gap between the district and the state widened in fourth-grade and fifth-grade reading and math scores, he added.
Steep drops in ISAT scores -- ranging from single digits to 55 percentage points in some suburban districts -- are attributed to the Illinois State Board of Education changing its grading scale to bring students in line with more rigorous standards for college and career readiness.
The test third- through eighth-graders took in the spring also changed, with 20 percent of questions aligned to tougher Common Core State Standards -- a state-led initiative crafted by education leaders and experts nationwide -- replacing previous standards that had not been updated since 1997.
In District 3, teachers have been working on implementing Common Core standards in reading for the past five years, even before the state adopted the standards in 2010. And in the past three years, teachers have increased their focus on improving math standards, Mahaffy said.
"We've had a reading room in place for the past 15 years," he said. "We've been putting in supplemental materials to increase that rigor all along. We push our teachers to push our kids to do the best and have a blast while they are doing it. We'll challenge them more next year."
Elgin Area School District U-46, the state's second-largest school district, saw some of the biggest decreases in scores on the Prairie State Achievement Exam, while some traditionally struggling schools made significant improvements.
The PSAE is a required two-day test for 11th-graders that includes a full-length ACT with multiple choice sections on English, reading, math and science, and an assessment measuring career-readiness skills. The test measures a school's progress each year, and the ACT portion is used by students for college applications.
Elgin High School saw the biggest decrease in the number of students meeting and exceeding standards in 11th-grade math and reading. Elgin and Buffalo Grove high schools were the only two area high schools that saw decreases in 11th-grade reading scores.
At U-46's Bartlett High School, the percentage of students who met or exceeded state standards on the PSAE jumped from 57.6 percent in 2011 to 64.8 in 2013. Even lower-performing schools such as Larkin High School in Elgin and Streamwood High School saw jumps of 5.6 points and 4.5 points, respectively, bringing each school to about 41 percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards.
At Larkin, three out of four students are considered economically disadvantaged, compared to 10 years ago when that number was about one in four, Principal Jon Tuin said.
"Clearly that presents some barriers, but we can't change it. We try to focus on the variables we can change," he said.
At Dundee-Crown, Hampshire and Jacobs high schools in Community Unit District 300, 11th-graders showed improvement over the previous year in reading and math -- scores went up between 2 and 11 percentage points in most cases except at Hampshire, where math scores dropped 3.7 percentage points. Science scores for 11th-graders showed modest declines, the highest of which was again at Hampshire at 5.9 percentage points.
Ben Churchill, District 300 assistant superintendent for high schools, attributed the reading and math gains to exceptional teachers, but he couldn't explain why science scores fell. "We're going to be looking into performance in all of our areas, and in those cases where we've remained flat and have seen a decrease, we'll certainly try to identify those causes," he said.
Churchill said this may be the last year for the PSAE and ISAT in their current formats, "so it's going to be hard to make comparisons year over year beginning next year."
School districts are soon going to be asked to move to online assessments.
Illinois is a member of the Partnership for Assessment for College and Careers that is developing a new generation of tests aligned to Common Core. The new state tests are expected to be rolled out by the 2014-15 school year.
For that, many suburban school districts will need to upgrade their technological capabilities, which likely will mean a bigger financial investment for some districts.
State education board spokeswoman Mary Fergus said only 25 percent of Illinois schools are ready to implement online instruction and testing.
"In the short term, we will provide paper and pencil tests until everyone is on board," she said, adding that the state is doing "some pilot testing of the ISAT online, just to see again how students handle online testing."
Suzanne Colombe, U-46's assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said students already take math assessment online.
"We do have computer labs and different infrastructures in place," she said. "Once we start to get more information about the requirements of the system/infrastructure, we know that we are going to need to add to our current system to meet that."
District 300's Churchill said the district's technology staff has spent the past two years preparing for online assessments.
Meanwhile, new Common Core science standards are yet to be adopted by the state. The state also has not raised performance expectations for the science portion of the ISAT, administered to fourth- and seventh-graders.
District 3's Mahaffy said a lot of textbook publishers are far behind what schools already are doing with Common Core and need to catch up. There really aren't any curricula available aligned with the new standards, he added.
"We've been holding off on adopting a new science curriculum because that's not cheap," he said. "We stayed ahead of what we're teaching aligned to those Common Core draft standards for science, even though they have not been adopted."