They're not typically among the highest performers, but several high schools in the Northwest suburbs have shown marked improvement on standardized testing, according to state report cards released today.
Prairie State Achievement Exam results are one data point of many that are part of the annual state report card on Illinois' schools. 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, as well as 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.
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While the top five-scoring Northwest suburban high schools in 2013 are similar to years past -- Prospect, Barrington, Hersey, Fremd and Maine South -- some schools not traditionally in that top tier show significant improvement.
Administrators say the upward trend is a product of putting more emphasis on preparing for standardized tests, plus a focus on other measures of student success.
At Rolling Meadows High School, 67.2 percent of students met or exceeded state standards on the PSAE, a big improvement from 2011 when the number was 60.6 percent.
Bartlett High School jumped from 57.6 percent in 2011 to 64.8 in 2013. Schaumburg High School improved 10.6 points in just the past year, going from 56.7 percent in 2012 to 67.3 percent this year. Maine East High School jumped 7 points in the past year.
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.
Those achievements are even more noteworthy when considering that the bar that measures which schools are meeting or exceeding state standards is raised each year. Only roughly 1 in 5 schools in Illinois gets a passing grade.
Focus on the test
The PSAE may be required for all high school juniors, but that doesn't mean all students know exactly what it is.
At Schaumburg High School, students saw a student-made video educating them on the different parts of the PSAE and the importance of understanding their scores on other standardized tests. In February, more than 900 students participated in practice testing for all grades, Principal Tim Little said. They got their scores back that same night.
At Hoffman Estates, educators gave a full-length practice ACT to all juniors for the first time last fall, said Jennifer Beers, student services coordinator. Counselors went over the results with each student and devised individual plans for improvement. The result was a 4-point jump in Hoffman's PSAE "meet or exceed" scores from 2012 to 2013, from 55.3 percent to 59.3 percent.
The school also offers free after-school ACT prep classes taught by teachers because nearly half the student body is classified as low-income.
Writing and math
Schools also focused on improving student performance in literacy and basic math proficiency, among other skill areas.
Students at Maine East focus on vocabulary and reading comprehension, even in biology and social science classes, said Helen Gallagher, English Department chairwoman.
"It's not just struggling students who need to be better readers; all of us need to be better readers," Gallagher said. "When you admit that at the high school level, many good things follow."
Similarly, at Streamwood High teachers are focusing on basic math skills in all subjects, said Principal Terri Lozier. Students will do math problems at the start of almost every class, including physical education.
At Larkin the focus has been on writing, with a new writing assessment for all students at the beginning and end of each school year that measures college readiness.
Beyond test scores
For many schools, gauging improvement is done through metrics beyond test scores and classroom performance.
"The test scores are important, but you have to understand they are just one measure of student performance," said Bartlett Principal Richard Lebron. "No single measure is going to give a very accurate overview of the success of a school."
Rolling Meadows Principal Eileen Hart credits an expanded Advanced Placement program and those directed toward first- generation college students for the school making large gains.
In 2010 Rolling Meadows students took 497 AP tests; in 2013 that number was up to 1,108. Not coincidentally, Hart says, the school also jumped 6.6 points in PSAE performance.
At Hoffman Estates, the failure rate has declined by 73 percent in the past three years, discipline referrals went down and attendance rates went up, said Principal Jim Britton.
"It's important that the students are learning and that we have a positive school climate -- if those things aren't happening, then test scores aren't going to go up no matter what you do," Britton said.
Lozier said the test scores don't paint an accurate picture of Streamwood High. Streamwood is the second-lowest performing school in the Daily Herald's coverage area of suburban Cook County, with
scores that show only 41.3 percent of students met or exceeded standards this year.
"It's sad to reduce a school or reduce students to one single number," Lozier said. "I don't think they tell the whole picture. It's unfair to blame a school or call it failing because of an arbitrary number."
Diverse student body
Many schools outside of the top tier have substantial numbers of low-income students and students whose families don't speak English at home.
At Maine East, 75 percent of students come from homes where English is not spoken, Principal Mike Pressler said.
"It's not a bad thing; it just is what it is," Pressler said. "With No Child Left Behind there was the thought that every child was going to achieve at 100 percent, but that was unattainable."
Illinois is in the process of seeking an exemption from No Child Left Behind -- a federal law passed in 2001 that expects schools to continue to raise their target scores each year or be labeled as failing.
Pressler said Maine East isn't trying to play catch-up with its better-scoring counterparts Maine South and Maine West but is trying simply to improve year after year.
"Every student comes in with different strengths and talents, and we're all about taking each student as far as they can possibly go," he said.
As schools near the bottom and middle-level of achievement continue to make large gains year after year, some educators say they are keeping an eye on the competition. Others say their biggest competitor is themselves.
"We don't see a glass ceiling," said Hart of Rolling Meadows. "Our hope is that we continue to see our kids excel. We'll keep doing what is best for our students, and who knows what that end result will be."