Here's how schools keep students on track while they wait for delayed state test results

As schools prepare to give their students a state-mandated science test for the third time, some local educators say there’s still a lot they don’t know about the exam.

Students’ scores from Illinois Science Assessment testing in 2016 and 2017 have been released within the last two months. The 2017 scores came two weeks before another group of students could begin testing.

And the state hasn’t told educators which science concepts their students knew or didn’t know based on the questions they got right or wrong, according to school officials.

The only feedback teachers have gotten about the kinds of questions on the test is from their students, according to Tracy Gray, an assistant superintendent in Belleville District 118. They learned that the science test asked students to analyze data in a chart, for example, so Gray said teachers started using charts and graphs in their classrooms to prepare students for that format.

What the state has sent to schools and families is a student’s score, which either meets the state’s standards for what children should know about science or it doesn’t. They also get the average scores for the students’ in their school, district and the state to see how the child compares.

High school students taking biology for the first time, as well as students in fifth and eighth grades, are required to take the Illinois Science Assessment each spring. It covers engineering, technology, applications of science and life science. Fifth- and eighth-graders are also tested on earth and space sciences and physical science.

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Smithton 7th and 8th grade science teacher Samantha Hedrick watches as students take a science test. Derik Holtmann

According to the results released this month, an average of 54 percent of fifth-graders and 59 percent of eighth-graders in Illinois met the science standards in 2017. An average of 40 percent of high school students also met expectations.

More than 95 metro-east schools scored above those averages.

Without timely or detailed feedback from state tests, educators say they have found other ways to determine whether the way they teach students is working, so they can make changes if needed.

Getting answers

The new science standards that the test measures are supposed to tell teachers, students and their families whether students will be prepared for what comes after high school: college or a career.

One of the ways O’Fallon Township High School shapes its curriculum is by sending its teachers to colleges to find out what freshmen there are expected to know, according to Martha Weld, O’Fallon District 203’s assistant superintendent. The high school also sends surveys to its recent graduates, asking how prepared they were for their freshman year. Weld said that research and feedback has led to changes in all of the core subjects at the high school.

O’Fallon Township High School has seen the most students meeting science standards among high schools in the five-county area each year, with 67 percent in 2016 and 72 percent in 2017.

Elsewhere in the metro-east, Principal Vicki Norton said Smithton Elementary School uses assessments throughout the academic year that let teachers know what their classes struggle with, so they can help before students take state tests on science, English and math.

In 2017, 96 percent of Smithton Elementary School's fifth-graders and 90 percent of its eighth-graders met the standards.

O’Fallon and Smithton schools were also among the top 50 scoring in the state.

The fifth-graders in Smithton put their elementary school at No. 11. Among high schools, O’Fallon Township High’s students put them at No. 17.

Inside a science class

Assistant Superintendent Weld said O’Fallon Township High School science teachers have been creating more assignments over the years that ask students to think critically, which is an aspect of Illinois’ science standards.

Even at an elementary school, Smithton science teacher Samantha Hedrick said she doesn’t accept answers from students that are just a couple of words. She asks them to elaborate, including why they think it was the answer.

Hedrick will also use an example in her lesson from everyday life because she wants students to recognize it and to think about science when they’re at home. She explains why the shower curtain is sucked in during a shower, for example, using a scientific principle.

“Students are like, ‘Oh, that happens to me a lot.’ OK, well here’s why,” she said.