ISAT scores drop across Illinois as schools prepare for new curriculum

News-DemocratOctober 31, 2013 

The tests have been graded, and as expected, most metro-east schools saw a major drop in the percentage of students who met state standards on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test.

The test scores that in years past determined whether a school was making adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act were frequently much higher for the elementary students taking the ISAT than the high school students taking the Prairie State Achievement Examination. As the ISAT is entering its last year of use, the state changed the rules for what scores were necessary to meet or exceed state standards on the test.

As such, elementary schools statewide dropped more than 20 points. While many metro-east elementary schools in years past saw 90 or even 100 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards, the top-scoring elementary school in Madison and St. Clair counties this year was Grantfork Upper Elementary of Highland District 5, with 87.5 percent meeting or exceeding standards. Highland Superintendent Mike Sutton could not be reached for comment.

Other top-scoring schools included New Douglas Mid-Elementary of Highland, Marine Elementary of Triad District 2, Cassens Elementary of Edwardsville District 7 and Millstadt Elementary.

Lovejoy Elementary in Brooklyn 188, Venice Elementary in Madison County and two schools in East St. Louis are among the lowest scoring schools. At Gordon Bush Elementary in East St. Louis, only 10.8 percent of students met state standards.

"We are keenly aware of our need for improvement as it relates to academic achievement," said Dorland Norris, assistant superintendent for East St. Louis District 189. Norris said the district is focusing on foundational work in English and math with a heavy emphasis on literacy to try to improve learning across the board, especially with the shift to the new curriculum known as Common Core impending at all Illinois districts.

"Part of that involves supporting our parents," Norris said. "Parent engagement includes books for parents and providing training to help support our parents, in turn helping their children embrace literacy and reading."

Grants focusing on literacy in the early grades, purchasing books to be given away to families at parent-teacher conferences, buying new textbooks aligned with Common Core and training for teachers are among the initiatives District 189 is trying, Norris said. In addition, a 21st Century Grant for $500,000 a year has been designated for activities focused on science, technology, engineering and math with tutoring support after school at three elementary schools, both middle schools and the high school, Norris said.

"We are struggling financially, and when you have students as needy as our kids, they need more support," Norris said. "What we've done is try to leverage the funds we have and the grants to take a comprehensive approach to reverse the trend of not performing well on our state tests."

Other initiatives include a program to help students who may have struggled with some classes early in high school, allowing them to get extra tutoring and test for high school credits. It is hoped that program will reduce the dropout rate and let students graduate on time, Norris said. Another grant through the St. Clair County Regional Office of Education is funding a specialist to work with ninth-grade students and their teachers on writing skills, she said.

"We know we have a lot of work to do at East St. Louis, we recognize that," Norris said. "But our students are worth all the work we have to do, so they have a chance, so they have access to higher education, and if they don't choose to go on to a four-year school, they are prepared for whichever route they take in life."

At the high school level, the test did not change, but schools are preparing for Common Core and the eventual shift to the PARCC test, which will be given at three high school grades instead of only 11th grade.

O'Fallon High School had the top PSAE composite score in the metro-east, with 72.3 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards and a composite ACT score of 23.3.

"The secrets to our success are that we have a very rigorous curriculum and an outstanding professional teaching staff that delivers that rigorous curriculum to the students in a caring and committed manner," said O'Fallon Superintendent Darcy Benway. "That's the ingredients to our success. ... We're very pleased with the performance of our students and the dedication of our teaching staff."

Other top-scoring high schools included Mascoutah, Edwardsville and Triad. The lowest-scoring high schools included Cahokia, Madison and East St. Louis.

Meanwhile, Belleville District 201 has taken on the issue of the "achievement gap." With a composite score of 56.4 percent at Belleville East and 55.2 percent meeting standards at Belleville West, Belleville schools nevertheless had significant differences in scores between black and white students.

Superintendent Jeff Dosier said the district has focused on community engagement and mentoring programs to close the gap: black male juniors and seniors who are successful students mentor freshman and sophomore black male students, and he credits that program with much of their improvement.

"These kids wanted to let the younger kids know what to do," Dosier said. "One of them said, 'Don't make the mistakes that I did.' He didn't take academics seriously when he was a freshman and it hurt his GPA."

Renewed initiatives in language arts and math, the mentoring program and significant community engagement led to a big jump for Belleville West: in 2012, 16.4 percent of black students met or exceeded standards, Dosier said. It jumped to 37 percent in one year. At Belleville East, it went from 35 percent to 40 percent.

Those improvements also led to overall increases in scores, with an increase of nearly 10 points at Belleville West.

"These improvements give some validity of what we're trying to do," Dosier said. "One of the great things is that the newspaper articles (about the achievement gap) put the issue out on the table. We had several meetings with parents and community members. ... There were people in California who saw the article online and called us to ask how they could help."

All districts will be shifting their curriculum over the next year or two, as this coming March is the last round for the current tests. Beginning in 2015, all students will take the PARCC test, aligned to the Common Core standards being implemented by the Illinois State Board of Education.

Statewide, there are 2,054,155 students enrolled in Illinois public schools. They are 50.6 percent white, 24.1 percent Hispanic and 17.6 percent black, and 49.9 percent are low-income while 9.5 percent speak English as a second language.

The high-school dropout rate statewide is 2.4 percent while the four-year graduation rate is 83.2 percent, and the average class has approximately 21 students. The average ACT score is 20.3.

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 239-2507.

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