By Terry Dean
There has been a long-held view among a vocal group of parents concerning the amount of testing done in District 97 — that there's too much of it.
First-year Supt. Albert Roberts has heard this criticism as well. The elementary school district conducts various internal assessments across all grade levels, not just those mandated via state standardized tests.
But parents in D97 have complained that too much of their kids' time is taken up taking tests instead of hands-on learning in the classroom. "Testing overload" is how they often describe it. Some have dubbed it "The Alphabet Soup," given the various acronyms these assessments sport.
Roberts agreed there is too much testing, not just in Oak Park but nationwide. Still, he also stressed that measuring accountability and performance are important.
"I am concerned about the amount of time school districts across this nation lose to testing requirements, and the way those testing results are used to paint a sometimes inaccurate picture," he said. "While testing is important, using any one measure of performance as a way to make a judgment about a youngster clearly goes against my educational philosophy.
"We do need multiple measures," Roberts added. "Those measures don't necessarily have to be a standardized test."
The Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) is mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act to test elementary school kids in reading and math. Others criticize the law for being an unfunded mandate. Roberts talks about giving attention to what he described as "authentic learning" instead.
"If I sit with a group of youngsters in a science class and have the youngster walk through an experiment with me, I pretty much know whether that youngster really understands the scientific method. But is that the only way we measure that, on a standardized test?"
Some of the district's assessments, Roberts added, do help instruction because students perform them on a computer, the results come back quickly and teachers can immediately adjust in their classrooms. Those, he said, are positive things about testing in the district.
"We must use assessment — and I'm talking about going beyond testing — to inform instruction so we're meeting the needs of each student in the district and not guessing at what their needs might be," Roberts said.
Another controversial aspect of NCLB is the AYP concept, where schools have to make "adequate yearly progress" annually by having a certain percentage of each student subgroup meet or exceed standards on the ISATs. School districts publicly report their scores and whether they've made AYP. Last year, four D97 schools failed to make AYP — Lincoln and Holmes elementary, and Brooks and Julian middle schools. But in certain years over the last decade, the district had every school make AYP.
Roberts considers AYP an inaccurate measurement.
"This nation is hung up on a box score mentality that's not always accurate," he said. "The concept that gets a lot of press, AYP, is flawed. We're [comparing] last year's group to this year's group. It makes much more sense, for me, to measure a youngster's progress over a year. ... Ask any parent: What they want to know is did my son or daughter learn during the course of a year?"
Such data is also important in tracking how students do when they graduate to Oak Park and River Forest High School or other area high schools.
Roberts supports sharing data with the high school but says it must be done properly. For consolidated districts, that's not an issue, he explained, but Oak Park has two separate public school districts.
"In a district where you have two different school boards and two different organizations, sharing that information can become problematical unless you have a release or parent knowledge," Roberts said. "I believe we've worked well with (Supt.) Steven (Isoye) at the high school to start to talk about what other things are really helpful for teachers there, and how do we do this where neither district has to defend itself in court."