State testing at Stella May Swartz Elementary School in Oakbrook Terrace turned into a celebratory event last spring.
Teachers held a kickoff assembly, decorated the hallways, invited cheerleaders to classrooms and gave test takers encouraging messages from their parents.
Educators say those stress relievers and a restructuring of curriculum helped students make significant strides in improving standardized test scores, according to 2017 Illinois School Report Card data released Tuesday.
Stella May posted a 16.4-percentage-point increase in students meeting or exceeding expectations on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, test -- the biggest jump among DuPage County schools.
The gains made Stella May an outlier in the state and region, according to a Daily Herald analysis of report card data. Of 197 elementary and middle schools in DuPage, 109 saw declines in the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards, 83 showed improvement and five recorded no change from 2016 results. The statewide average ticked up less than 1 percentage point. State school leaders say their report cards numbers might be updated later this week.
At the high school level, juniors took the state-funded SAT college entrance exam instead of the controversial PARCC for the first time in the spring. Though educators are relieved the state made the switch, they caution against reading too much into baseline SAT scores.
At Stella May Swartz in Salt Creek District 48, 51.6 percent of students fell within the meets or exceeds categories, up from 35.2 percent in 2016. Educators attribute the improvement to more rigorous math curriculum and a new testing environment that eased student stress.
|2017 Illinois School Report Cards: Find all the vital data for your school and district, plus lists of the top schools in the state. Click here for 2017 school report cards.|
"We treated it like this is your chance to show off everything you've been working hard for this year," Principal Gerrie Aulisa said.
Teachers set a theme -- "Knock it out of the PARCC" -- for testing week as a nod to the start of baseball season. Second-graders served as the cheerleaders greeting test takers each morning. Students in third and fourth grades also took the online exam on district-issued devices, whereas in previous years they were sent to computer labs.
"We had the technology where they could test in their classrooms on their devices with their teacher," Aulisa said. "To me, it made a difference. They're in their normal space."
Elsewhere in the county, White Eagle Elementary in Indian Prairie District 204 had an 11.8-percentage-point decrease in students meeting or exceeding standards -- the biggest drop among DuPage schools.
District 204 Superintendent Karen Sullivan said one year's decline isn't cause for concern. "We pay a lot more attention to our own internal assessments for students," she said.
The state's contract to administer PARCC ends June 30, but state education officials support keeping it. Regardless of what testing is used, educators urge the state to release assessment data sooner so they can make adjustments for the upcoming school year.
Scores of 530 on the math section and 480 on the reading and writing section meet SAT's minimum benchmarks for college readiness. But Illinois has set tougher proficiency thresholds.
Students had to score 540 on both the math and the reading sections to meet the state's minimum targets.
"I think we'll see those get closer and closer to the what the College Board has set as thresholds for college readiness the more that we start to see trends and patterns emerge," Neuqua Principal Robert McBride said.
With average scores of 607.5 and 606 on the math and reading portions, respectively, Neuqua students far exceeded the state's and College Board's benchmarks.
McBride credited the high marks on a schoolwide commitment to build skills -- understanding academic vocabulary, for instance -- that translate to the SAT and college.
"We have a certain amount of relentlessness about that focus," he said.