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Educators agree: State report  cards mostly earn failing grade

A teacher helps prepare students for taking ACT exam. | Sun-Times MediFile

A teacher helps prepare students for taking the ACT exam. | Sun-Times Media File

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2011 Illinois State Report Cards

Updated: November 7, 2012 5:29PM

Illinois released the annual statewide school report cards today, and as always, educators, parents and residents have been handed enough charts, graphs and figures to make their eyes go cross.

Some schools — Nicholson Elementary in the West Aurora School District, for example — saw huge gains in the numbers of students meeting or exceeding state standards for reading and math.

Other schools, like Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, saw a perplexing drop in its ACT figure, the main measuring stick used to assess schools, despite other indicators of success.

It’s been more than a decade since federal No Child Left Behind standards ushered in the era of so-called “data-driven education,” in which schools could be called “passing” or “failing” based on a few test scores, and schools began waging the battle to make adequate yearly progress — an ever-raising bar for student achievement. But how much has really changed inside Fox Valley schools? Are schools any better? Are students learning more? And do the test scores really mean anything?
“I can’t really say it’s helped a great deal,” said Geneva High School Principal Thomas Rogers. “Education has always been a priority in our community. We didn’t need a high-stakes test to give us a shot in the arm.”

‘Just one test’

Even the Illinois State Board of Education is playing down the importance of the most recent test scores as fewer schools — 66 percent of Illinois schools and the vast majority of schools in the Fox Valley — made adequate yearly progress, a measure of the number of students meeting state standards, this year.

Statewide, educators are looking forward to next year, as schools roll out curriculum and Illinois continues its appeal to the federal government for a waiver that would allow the state to drop No Child Left Behind standards.

“We are hopeful that this is the last year we report on AYP results and can instead offer data that paints a fuller picture of each student’s and school’s learning experience,” said State Superintendent of Education Christopher A. Koch in a press release.

Educators have lamented since the implementation of No Child Left Behind and its emphasis on high-stakes annual testing that exams do little to sum up the breadth of what a child learns in school.

“It’s just one test a year. It’s a test geared for kids going to college, it’s a college admissions test,” said Sandwich High School Principal Mitchell Nystedt about the ACT, which makes up the first half of the Prairie State Achievement Exam for high school juniors each year. “We look at a lot of other scores, at common assessments, just to give us even more information on how our kids are doing.”

Scores inching up

Still, despite the gains and losses year to year, the line representing students who are reading and doing math at grade level, when averaged out, shows a steady, though slight, incline.

ACT scores across Illinois have inched upward over the past five years.

Those schools that have historically been high-achieving have continued to achieve, and even done a little better. Those schools that are behind are still behind, but slightly more students are reading and doing math at level.

“I definitely think it helps,” said Nystedt. “There are critics of No Child Left Behind, but it did cause the schools to sit back and reflect. We used to be good at helping college-bound students, and now we’re really looking at our entire student body and helping them achieve the best they can achieve.”

He said that teachers and administrators at Sandwich High School have changed some of their curriculum in the last two years, in part responding to state standards.

“We instituted more AP courses here at the high school,” Nystedt said. “Even if they aren’t in the subjects being tested (on the Prairie State or ACT exams) they have an impact on reading scores. Having more reading in an AP is going to help in general. And we created a two-year algebra sequence for students that were struggling. Because algebra is the basis for everything else, we want them to have a firm foundation.”

Changes next year

While the curriculum changes may be permanent, the reams of figures and charts have seen their last year.

Next year, Illinois State Report Cards are getting a whole new look, with new measures of success. The new cards include less test score data, and have more information on how many AP classes and extra curricular programs the schools offer, attendance rates for students and teachers, and how many of its freshmen end the ninth grade with enough credits to still be on track for graduation.

And that’s the kind of data principals said they really pay attention to.

“The graduation rate, the number of students attending college, we also have fairly large number of students taking AP exams and succeeding on those,” said Rogers. “Those are some of the things that also go into the mix.”

Nystedt also said that, even though his school and its teachers do work on student achievement on exams, that’s just one aspect of a school’s success.

“I personally look at the percentage of kids participating in a school sport or activity. The more they participate, the more likely they’re here and they’re going to make an investment,” he said. “Discipline rates, truancy, our attendance rates are very high, so we’re happy but we always want improvement with that because kids, if they aren’t in class, they aren’t learning. There’s a lot that goes into success.”

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