MOUNT ZION — One of the first steps the Mount Zion School District took after the federal government began measuring school performance under No Child Left Behind 10 years ago was to provide Study Island, a test-preparation software fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders could use on their own.
Teachers also quickly adjusted the timing of what they taught so students would know the material before it was time to take the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, the state’s chief assessment tool since 2000. “We were on board right away,” remembers longtime fifth-grade teacher Mary Jo Fischer.
As third-graders in early 2004, members of the class of 2013 were among youngest students first assessed this way under the federal law.
Even so, Mount Zion senior Will Sands, 17, doesn’t remember any angst.
“The test was looked at like almost every other assignment we had to do, and preparation was just part of the curriculum,” he said. “That made it a lot less scary.”
It also helps explain how the district’s seniors improved their performance during the early years when many of their contemporaries across Illinois did not.
They also accomplished the twin challenge of achieving stellar results while showing strong improvement during their school testing careers. Other area high schools whose seniors who met both challenges include Shelbyville, Dieterich, Charleston, Arthur and DeLand-Weldon.
This analysis, particularly the ability to track the test performance of students over time, provides a silver lining to the dark cloud of failure growing over Illinois schools and districts as the percentage of students required to meet state learning goals in reading and math has moved inexorably upward.
This standard applies not only to the overall enrollment but also to specific subgroups of students including low-income, special education and major racial categories.
For 2012, the target was supposed to have been 92.5 percent but was held at 85 percent in Illinois for the second consecutive year because the state has applied for a waiver from the requirements.
Despite that, just six school districts out of 43 in the Herald & Review circulation area made adequate yearly progress in 2012: DeLand-Weldon, Maroa-Forsyth, Mount Zion, Shelbyville, Teutopolis and Warrensburg-Latham.
The tally for schools making it was 33 elementary schools — including Garfield Montessori Magnet and Baum in Decatur — 14 middle schools and no high schools.
Not that failure to make Adequate Yearly Progress means a lot, especially now that requirements of No Child Left Behind are likely to change before 2014 when 100 percent of all students and subgroups would be required to meet learning goals.
Those facing some of the most severe consequences are Decatur, Vandalia and Lincoln High School districts, which are in corrective action, and Thomas Jefferson and Stephen Decatur middle schools in Decatur, Vandalia Junior High and Ramsey Elementary schools, which are implementing restructuring.
Lesser sanctions require schools to draw up school improvement plans, give parents the choice of sending their children to another school and provide tutoring.
The vast majority of districts and schools across Central Illinois, however, demonstrated improvement on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test with the class of 2013.
Denise Bence, superintendent of the Shelbyville School District, speculated that this class was the first tested after Shelbyville got its curriculum aligned with the test.
“It’s a little hard for me to be objective about this class because my son is in it,” Bence said, “but they seem to be great kids and have been since elementary school.”
Administrators at Mount Zion and Maroa-Forsyth reported the same about their senior classes and also credited involved parents and high expectations for their success.
Senior Kady Mahaffey, 18, said she felt challenged the minute her family moved into Forsyth from Kansas during her sophomore year.
“You have to get 94 to 100 to get an A,” Mahaffey said. “In Topeka, it was 90 to 100.”
In 2012, the top 10 performing area districts on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, given to students in grades 3 through 8, were: Monticello, Mount Zion, Teutopolis, Maroa-Forsyth, Shelbyville, Tuscola, DeLand-Weldon, Sullivan, Dieterich and Warrensburg-Latham.
The top 10 on the Prairie State Achievement Exam given to high school juniors were Mount Zion, Maroa-Forsyth, Monticello, Shelbyville, Neoga, Teutopolis, Altamont, Tuscola, Central A&M and Charleston.
Complete 2012 achievement testing results for the Herald & Review’s circulation area are available at www.herald-review.com.
Just as Mount Zion’s class of 2013 bucked a statewide trend by showing a large amount of improvement between third and fifth grades, Shelbyville and Maroa-Forsyth’s seniors were among those that did especially well at middle school level because those districts devote two of their core subjects to language skills.
At Maroa-Forsyth Middle School, that adds up to about 45 extra minutes spent on the subject every day.
School districts also count technology, including tablet computers and interactive white boards, as a big plus in helping lessons sink in.
Earlier last week, for example, sixth-grade reading teacher Angie Woodhall was using her white board to show her class how to tell the difference between a fact and an opinion.
“I really get to focus on reading and literature, while the English teacher can concentrate on grammar and writing,” Woodhall said.
Over at Mount Zion Intermediate School, teacher Mary Jo Fischer was recently using her white board to teach her fifth-graders about similes and math concepts, including how to determine a range and a median.
“The kids don’t know they’re getting ready for the ISATs,” Fischer said. “To them, it’s all incorporated, and they have fun with it.”
Eleven-year-old Olivia Marshall said a white board is better than a computer.
“Everyone can see it at the same time,” she said. “It makes it easier to learn.”