Most grade school students in Oak Park and River Forest scored above state averages on the annual Illinois Scholastic Achievement Test (ISAT) in 2013 despite the state having raised the scores necessary to meet state standards.
For the last six months, educators have been warning parents and others that passing rates would drop significantly this year. And they did. Statewide, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards in the test given to all third- through eighth-graders in Illinois public schools fell by 24 percentage points from 83 percent in 2012 to 59 percent this year as the state raised the so called "cut scores."
But Oak Park and River Forest scores fell less than the statewide average. In Oak Park District 97, the percentage meeting state standards dropped 15 points from 91 percent in 2012 to 76 percent this year. In River Forest District 90, the drop was even less, only 10 points, from 96 percent in 2012 to 86 percent this year.
"Our drop was not as significant as in some districts," said D90 Supt. Edward Condon. "Historically, the schools in our district have had a higher than average number of students in the 'exceeds' category. Statistically, districts that have that kind of configuration have a bit more of a buffer."
Felicia Starks-Turner, director of administrative services for D97, said much the same thing.
If the 2012 ISAT results had been scored using the new 2013 standards, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards would have stayed the same in Oak Park this year and dropped only a single percentage point in River Forest. So it's not that students are getting dumber. It's that the state raised the curve.
That was necessary, state education officials say, because the old standards did not give a true reflection of the achievement necessary to have success in high school and beyond. Under the old benchmarks, students generally performed well on the ISATs in grade school, but scores dropped significantly when they took the Prairie State Achievement Exam in high school.
"We recognized that we needed to raise the bar," said Mary Fergus, a spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Education. "It was showing like 80 percent of kids were meeting and exceeding in grade school and then they get to high school and only 50 percent were meeting and exceeding. We realized there was an issue there."
In D97, the troubling achievement gap between black students and white students remained wide. While 90 percent of white students met or exceeded state standards in reading, only 53 percent of black students did. In math, 88 percent of white students met or exceeded state standards compared with only 46 of black students.
"In our district we are proud of the minority student achievement," Starks-Turner said, "and we are constantly looking at strategies, looking at teaching practices to close the achievement gap. There's no simple, quick fix."
Geographical disparities also became apparent looking at school-by-school results in Oak Park. The highest performing school was Mann with 84.4 percent meeting or exceeding state standards. At Holmes School, 82.1 percent of students met or exceeded state standards while 81.6 of Beye students did so. At Longfellow, 79.9 percent made the grade while 78.9 percent of Whittier students and 77.3 percent of Hatch students did. Lincoln and Irving Schools, both located south of the Eisenhower Expressway, were the lowest performing schools, with 73.2 of Lincoln students meeting or exceeding state standards and 71.4 percent at Irving.
At Julian Middle School, 74.4 percent of students met or exceeded, compared with 73.3 percent at Brooks.
Holmes was the only D97 school to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) under the federal No Child Left Behind law, which currently requires 92.5 percent of students to meet or exceed state standards. Holmes did not clear that very high bar, but made AYP under a safe harbor provision.
A number of D97 schools did not make AYP under the tough new grading system for the first time in 2013, including Mann (in math), Hatch, Irving, Lincoln, Longfellow, Whittier and Julian, according to Starks-Turner.
In River Forest only Lincoln School made AYP this year, as Willard and Roosevelt fell short for the first time.
Next year, very few schools will make AYP because the law requires that 100 percent of students meet or exceed state standards although Illinois has applied for a waiver from the law, which will probably be granted.
"I think most of the individuals who follow the nuances of standardized assessment are aware that the situation with AYP is a bit of the last man standing," Condon said. "One of the schools that did not make AYP is actually our blue ribbon school, Roosevelt Middle, and I think people are very well aware that [this] mars in no way, shape or form the outstanding education experiences the children are having in schools on a daily basis."
At Roosevelt, 85.7 percent of students met or exceeded state standards in 2013 even with the new higher cut scores whereas 92.3 percent of students at Lincoln School in River Forest cleared the bar and 81.3 percent did so at Willard School.