For administrators at many of DuPage County's top-performing elementary schools, the release each year of state report card data usually brings an extra reason to celebrate during Halloween festivities.
These educators know they're working with high-performing students and teachers. The test scores and statistics provided by the report cards simply validate a year's worth of hard work.
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Even the best have fallen in DuPageAmong the highest-performing elementary schools in the Daily Herald's DuPage County coverage area, these 10 saw the smallest percentage point decreases this year in the number of students meeting or exceeding standards on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test.
1. Longfellow, Wheaton
2012: 95.1 percent
2013: 90.8 percent
2. Brook Forest, Oak Brook
2012: 99.7 percent
2013: 94.4 percent
3. Highlands, Naperville
2012: 97.7 percent
2013: 91.7 percent
4. May Watts, Naperville
2012: 95.3 percent
2013: 88.9 percent
5. Meadow Glens, Naperville
2012: 95.1 percent
2013: 88.3 percent
T-6. Fry Elementary in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 (Naperville)
2012: 97.4 percent
2013: 90.5 percent
T-6. Benjamin Franklin, Glen Ellyn
2012: 95.5 percent
2013: 88.6 percent
8. River Woods, Naperville
2012: 95.4 percent
2013: 86.9 percent
9. Patterson Elementary in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 (Naperville)
2012: 96 percent
2013: 87.4 percent
10. Spring Brook Elementary in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 (Naperville)
2012: 96.2 percent
2013: 87.1 percent
Source: state report cards
Daily Herald's School Checker
The Daily Herald's School Checker is an innovative new research tool that helps you easily make sense out of the Illinois School Report Card data. Compare the results from your neighborhood school to the school across town. Or to any school in the state. Find it at at reportcards.dailyherald.com
"We just have a tradition of academic excellence," said Kelly Voliva, principal at Brook Forest Elementary in Butler District 53. "We have teachers that constantly strive to perfect their craft. We are always trying to challenge students."
The annual state report cards, released today, provide a cornucopia of information about student achievement, demographics and other data for every school in Illinois. This year's results in particular present a new challenge and a more complicated story.
Faced with tougher questions on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test and higher standards as they begin to implement the more stringent Common Core curriculum, even the best schools from Oak Brook to Wheaton are seeing drops in the percentages of students who meet or exceed state standards.
"What used to be a 'meets' is no longer a 'meets,'" said Faith Dahlquist, assistant superintendent for educational services in Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200. "It's like the grading scale has changed. It doesn't mean the level of performance went down."
Educators across DuPage and the state knew these drops were coming and tried to prepare parents, warning them against disappointment in their school's -- and possibly their child's -- seemingly lower performance. And while almost all schools saw decreases in the number of students who meet or exceed standards this year, some schools had more students above the bar than others.
While some schools in West Chicago Elementary District 33 and Addison Elementary District 4 saw students who meet or exceed standards fall between 25.2 and 40.1 percentage points, Longfellow Elementary in Wheaton, Brook Forest in Oak Brook and others saw slighter decreases starting at 4.3 and 5.3 percentage points, respectively.
Highlands Elementary in Naperville Unit District 203 saw a 6 percentage point drop; May Watts Elementary in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 had a 6.4 percentage point decrease; and Meadow Glens Elementary in District 203 registered a drop of 6.8 percentage points.
Leaders at schools that experienced smaller decreases credit a variety of educational factors.
Changes in curriculum and textbooks helped 90.8 percent of Longfellow students continue to meet or exceed standards, along with teacher meetings to identify the most effective practices and a focus on achievement for all, Principal Dianne Thornburg said.
"I have teachers who are really relentless in believing that all students can achieve at high levels," she said.
The school, along with all elementaries in District 200, has new informational texts purchased the past two years so teachers can match lessons to the Common Core's emphasis on reading nonfiction for facts, said Dahlquist, assistant superintendent for educational services. The district also set its own, higher cutoff scores a few years ago in advance of the state's move to increase its benchmarks this year.
"We have known for a while the state cut scores were not at a high enough rate to give us a good enough accurate feel for whether our students were on the right track," Dahlquist said.
Brook Forest used similar methods to keep 94.4 percent of its students meeting or exceeding standards this year, Voliva said. She said parental involvement and access to iPads or laptops, which allow students to work in groups tailored to their skill level, also have helped.
To maintain a high percentage of students above the state's new meets/exceeds bar, schools needed to be challenging even gifted students to raise their scores.
"We really provide very tailored instruction to those students," Voliva said. "School could be easy for a lot of our kids here, but it's our goal to keep them excited about learning."
Many schools that didn't see drastic drops in percentages of students who meet or exceed standards were assisted also by the characteristics of who they're teaching.
Highlands Elementary in Naperville Unit District 203, where 91.7 percent of students meet or exceed standards this year, hosts a magnet program for gifted students in fourth and fifth grades. Meadow Glens, also in District 203, has a gifted magnet program in fourth grade and maintained 88.3 percent of its students above the meets/exceeds bar.
At Brook Forest, only 1.4 percent of students face the challenge of limited English proficiency, and 4.9 percent are classified as low-income.
While high-achieving schools may be diverse -- students at Longfellow speak 15 languages, and the population is 19.4 percent low-income and 11.4 percent limited-English proficient -- they do not face the same challenges as schools with majorities of low-income or limited English-speaking populations.
Pioneer Elementary in West Chicago Elementary District 33 has 92.9 percent low-income students and 68.7 percent limited English-speaking students, while demographics at Turner Elementary in West Chicago District 33 and Lake Park Elementary in Addison Elementary District 4 nearly mirror each other at roughly 79 percent low-income and 52 percent limited-English proficient.
These schools saw among the five largest drops in DuPage in percentages of students who meet or exceed standards, with Turner falling 40.1 points and Currier and Lake Park both sliding 37.4 .
Many educators are predicting more of the same deceivingly lower percentages of students who meet or exceed standards the next couple of years.
In 2014, the test is getting harder -- again -- with 100 percent of ISAT questions aligned to the Common Core instead of this year's 20 percent.
Then, the ISAT will make way in spring 2015 for a new test called PARCC, or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
Patrick Nolten, executive director of research and assessment at Indian Prairie Unit District 204 -- where May Watts and Fry elementary schools fared among the 10 best in the area in maintaining students above the new threshold -- said no one can predict when test results will return to their previous levels.
But educators say they are using new curriculum, collaboration, technology -- everything in their power -- to ensure students continue making progress.
"Students didn't suddenly lose knowledge, intellect, ability or anything like that," Nolten told school board members recently. "(The state) just changed what's high enough to be considered meets or exceeds."