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Illinois Schools Falling Below High Bar Set By State

Pass rates for Illinois elementary students on state tests remain stubbornly low for the third year, results released Tuesday show, while less than 40 percent of Illinois high schoolers met state standards on a new exam.

And the vast majority of the state’s 1,500-plus elementary schools showed no growth or did worse on state tests compared to last year, even as Illinois is preparing to begin judging schools on how much they help students improve from year to year. 

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In a call outlining the state’s school report card data, State Superintendent Tony Smith highlighted areas of progress in the state’s public schools. He noted rising graduation rates, up 1.4 percent to 86.9 percent, and a big uptick in the number Advanced Placement exams taken by high schoolers.

He acknowledged the difficulty of the elementary and high schools exams, but said he’s committed to keeping these exams because they measure skills kids need to know in today’s world. Some schools had one or more grades where not one student passed.

“We need more of our students to demonstrate readiness for sure,” Smith said.

This sobering picture comes as Illinois is now measuring both elementary and high school students against a new, higher bar. The elementary school standard was raised three years ago with the introduction of new more rigorous reading and math tests known as PARCC, or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

This year, high schools swapped out the ACT exam for SAT college entrance exam and set a relatively challenging pass rate.

The average SAT score in Illinois is 1015 out of 1600, with 38 percent of students meeting the state pass rate of 1080. On the PARCC exam, which is given to elementary students in grades three to eight, students saw scores rise slightly on the reading portion, with 37 percent meeting state standards. But students did worse on average in math, with 31.2 making the grade.

In Chicago Public Schools, elementary scores were stagnant in math and inched up in reading, but overall were well below state averages at 26.1 percent meeting state standards. As has been the case for a long time, the top and bottom performing elementary and high schools were Chicago.

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These results offer a more realistic picture of how Illinois students measure up nationally. On Illinois’ previous elementary school exam, 56 percent of eighth graders met standards in English, for example, yet on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, only 35 percent rated as proficient.

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Smith said one way to boost achievement is to identify schools that help students progress and encourage them to coach schools where students are faltering. In the past, a school that didn’t do well was punished, but the new federal education law and Illinois' new accountability system emphases supporting struggling schools instead, he said.

“It is daunting and there are significant pressures on schools that are outside the school,” he said, “but the school has the massive capacity to alter trajectories for children.”

However, looking at progress from year to year, rather than actual test scores, can be tricky, said Lynn Zeder, assistant superintendent in Orland Park School District 135.

Many schools, like some of hers, have only a few grades and a small number of students. PARCC scores at one kindergarten through third grade schools in her school district went from about 55 percent meeting standard to more than 80 percent this year.

“We are very proud of those scores,” Zeder said. But she notes with only 50 to 60 students tested,  swings in one direction could reflect changes in the student body rather than changes in teaching.

Other schools are still adjusting to the PARCC.

At McDowell Elementary School in Chicago’s Calumet Heights neighborhood on the South Side, principal Jo Easterling-Hood said staff dreaded the test before it launched three years ago. And she said she is still not sold on it.

Easterling-Hood said she likes Common Core standards, national learning standards that PARCC is based on. The standards emphasize critical thinking skills more than acquired knowledge like the previous state test.

Students need those skills for high school, college and today’s careers, she said. But she’s not sure students are ready in the younger grades.

“You are asking them to compare the two passages and you are asking questions about what is the general theme of both,” she said. “For a 9-year-old, a 10-year-old, an 11-year-old, they may still be at the developmental stage where they need more concrete examples and you are asking them to do something that is more abstract.”

But her school is trying to make it happen. After disappointing results last year, she said her staff tweaked instruction to emphasize more complex skills such as comparing and contrasting complex texts. And that paid dividends, with test scores at McDowell going up by about 20 percent.

Students listen to a book report at Christopher House. (Paula Friedrich/WBEZ)

At Christopher House Charter School, also in Chicago, principal Kristin Novy said the key to her school’s improved test scores was getting students to write their responses to what they read.

She also takes pains to increase the confidence and stamina of her students for the long, rigorous test. And she makes sure they go to music, recess, and gym on the days of the test.

“We really believe in supporting each child individually and when kids are having a rough time we take a very holistic approach to supporting their needs,” she said. “All that work shows up on tests.”

High Schools also are making major adjustments.

Not only did the state change to the SAT, it also opted for a higher standard for students to be considered college ready. The state’s SAT standard is a score of 1080, 70 points higher than what College Board, the group that administers the SAT, considers the minimum for college readiness.

Smith said the state intentionally set high standards to try to reduce the number of students who need remedial classes in college. Nearly 47 percent of Illinois high school graduates enrolling in Illinois community colleges had to take at least one remedial class, state data released Tuesday show.

In Chicago, 26.1 percent of Chicago Public School juniors met or exceeded that state standard for the SAT, the same pass rate as on the elementary exam. Only 33 of 110 Chicago schools bested the district average, illustrating the wide gulf in Chicago between its handful of top-performing schools that admit based on test scores and the rest of the city’s schools. 

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Some 78 percent of CPS’ students are considered low income and research shows a tight link between socioeconomic status and academic achievement.

Back of the Yards High School on the city’s southwest side was one of few that beat Chicago’s average, with nearly 30 percent of its kids hitting the mark.

Principal Patty Brekke said teachers are already changing their curriculum this year to better prepare students for the SAT next year.

But she said school isn’t only about passing one test.

“There’s so much more that goes into the planning that we do as educators to make sure that our kids are strong readers, strong writers and strong mathematicians than trying to hit a number,” she said.

Sarah Karp and Susie An are WBEZ reporters. Follow them on Twitter @WBEZeducation.

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