DECATUR — The state's shift to testing public school students based on the latest federal standards, part of a comprehensive curriculum change called Common Core, is only in its third year, and the districts in Decatur's orbit showed a mixed bag when compared to Illinois as a whole.
Under the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test, tougher standards meant that only 36 percent of students statewide in grades three through eight reached their grades' reading standards last year — 30 percent for math in results released at 12:01 a.m. today. That's a slight increase for math over the previous school year's results, and a 1 percent dip in reading.
In 2012, before Common Core standards came to Illinois, more than 80 percent of public school students met the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, known as ISAT.
The Decatur School District repeated its PARCC performance last year, with 11 percent of students meeting the standards in their grade level in math and English overall.
Decatur Superintendent Paul Fregeau said when he accepted the position last spring that he was not happy with the numbers from the 2016 tests and had several ideas for improving them, among them a strong focus on literacy skills. He said the district uses many assessments to judge the academic progress of its students, and PARCC is just one, if important, measure of how they're doing. The district is also taking steps to help.
Decatur schools have implemented reading recovery and math initiatives this year to help improve students' classroom performance, which provide individualized programs for struggling students, and Fregeau is also working on a plan to create “vertical alignment” in Decatur schools, in which students who move from one building to another will not experience gaps in curriculum.
The lowest scores in Decatur came from Hope Academy, with no students reaching expectations in math, and no students in sixth grade meeting reading expectations. Reading in the other grades ranged from a high of 8.2 percent in seventh grade meeting or exceeding expectations to a low of 1.9 percent in fourth grade.
“We recognize that things need to be different,” said Fregeau, who noted Hope Academy teachers have begun professional development as the school transitions to a new education model.
Johns Hill Magnet School and Garfield Montessori School have traditionally performed well on state tests, and both averaged just better than 22 percent of students meeting or exceeding expectations.
The district has high mobility, with 15 percent of students moving at least once during the school year, and 73 percent poverty, both of which are factors in student academic achievement.
A frequent criticism of standardized test scores is that they often offer a punishing look at high-poverty schools, where students are more likely to struggle with hunger and housing mobility. They often start kindergarten trailing in academic and social-emotional development, compared to their more affluent peers.
The U.S. Department of Education approved Illinois' new federal accountability plan in August in which Illinois proposed factoring a student's improvement over time into a new school grading system. The approach is meant to judge schools more fairly.
In area schools, Sangamon Valley, Bement, and Warrensburg-Latham hovered near state averages, all at 32 percent of students meeting or exceeding expectations. Warrensburg-Latham improved 9 percentage points over the previous year, the biggest improvement in the region.
Meanwhile, Maroa-Forsyth and Monticello led the area pack with 49 percent and 53 percent of students, respectively, meeting the PARCC threshold.
The disparity between a high-poverty district like Decatur and one with few students in poverty, such as Monticello, shows how difficult the task is of educating low-income students in areas with other social and economic challenges.
"We probably have the lowest low-income percentage of the schools in the (area), so that's a pretty strong correlation to success in schools," said Monticello Superintendent Vic Zimmerman.
State assessments of schools have long been described as “a snapshot” of how students are performing, and one of many measures that school districts use to determine achievement.
PARCC has been phased in over several years in Illinois since Common Core learning standards were adopted. Forty-two states, the District of Columbia and four territories adopted Common Core beginning in 2013 and not all of those have yet reached full implementation in both English language arts and math.
Illinois' results last year were disappointing, said State Superintendent Tony Smith, with 36.2 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards in reading and 30.5 percent in math. Those numbers increased this year to 37 percent meeting or exceeding in reading and 31.2 percent in math.