DECATUR — The class of 2013 has never known school without the Illinois Standards Achievement Test and No Child Left Behind.
“If you don’t do well, you feel like you’ve let your school down,” said Melissa Tallent, a senior at Eisenhower High School.
Some students take the test lightly, of course. It doesn’t affect their report cards or whether they get promoted to the next grade. But most, said Ashley Cook, a senior at MacArthur High School, realize that their performance reflects on their teacher and their school and do the best they can.
However, the ISAT still doesn’t mean as much to a student as the Prairie State Achievement Exam, taken in 11th grade, that includes the ACT test.
“That’s the rest of your life,” Cook said. “College is more important. (That test) is determining your career path, so the ACT is more stressful. As a (younger) kid you say, ‘OK, it’s a test.’ ”
Decatur’s class of 2013 held fairly steady in performance on the ISAT over the years from third through eighth grade, after a dip in performance when they were fifth-graders. They recovered by eighth grade, with an average of 70.9 percent meeting or exceeding goals in reading and 67.9 percent in math. Students at Johns Hill, Garfield Montessori and French Academy turned in the highest performances overall. All three are magnet schools, drawing students from throughout the district.
High school performance on the state tests has not been as good. The Prairie State and ACT are completely different sorts of tests from the ISAT, but targets are the same. For the tests taken in March 2012, 85 percent of students were expected to meet or exceed state standards. The state average was 50.7 percent in reading and 51.6 percent in math. Decatur students’ average was 36 percent in reading and 24.9 percent in math. High school scores statewide are historically lower than K-8 scores. Only two high schools in the state made Adequate Yearly Progress in 2012.
No Child Left Behind took effect in 2003 and called for 40 percent of students to meet or exceed state standards in reading and math based on an annual test, with that percentage rising steadily until by 2014, all students would perform at grade level. Schools that fall short of annual goals, whether that’s the students as a whole or racial, economic or special education subgroups, face escalating consequences.
In Decatur, the district is in the fourth year of corrective action for not making Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal law. Both middle schools have reached restructuring consequences, and most elementary schools, with the exceptions of Garfield Montessori Magnet, Baum, Muffley and Robertson Charter schools, are under some level of consequences such as the requirement to offer choice and free tutoring. Eisenhower High School is in a three-year grant-funded “turnaround” process.
The reason Garfield, Baum, Muffley and Robertson are not facing consequences is that all have made Adequate Yearly Progress recently. Muffley and Robertson both made Adequate Yearly Progress in 2011, and a school must fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress at least two consecutive years for the first consequences to take effect. To make Adequate Yearly Progress, the school or district as a whole must meet or exceed targets, as well as every subgroup. A subgroup is 45 or more students in the categories of race, low-income, special education or limited English proficiency. If one subgroup fails to meet targets, the whole building or district fails to make Adequate Yearly Progress.
“You try to make the best out of whatever the consequences are,” said Deputy Superintendent Lisa Mann. “For us, they’re different at each school because people are on different years of not making AYP. Hopefully, with the recent presidential election, they’ll finally address (reauthorizing) this law.”
This year’s seniors have taken the current testing every year since third grade and they are the first graduating class to spend their entire school careers being measured under No Child Left Behind.
Overall, in the years since No Child Left Behind, Decatur students have improved. Multiracial students have shown the most gains in reading, with a 14.4 percentage point improvement since 2006. Black students’ reading scores are up 13.5 percentage points in the same period, and low-income students are up 12.7 percentage points. The 2012 numbers, however, are down across the board. The biggest percentage-point loss was special education reading, which fell by 9 percentage points from 2011, and special education math, which fell by 8 percentage points.
Only two Decatur schools made Adequate Yearly Progress for 2012, and those were Baum and Garfield. Garfield’s eighth-graders did especially well, with 100 percent of them meeting expectations in reading and 96.2 percent in math. In 2011 as seventh-graders, 100 percent met goals in math and 96.2 in reading.
Muffley met goals in reading, and Oak Grove and Stevenson met goals in math.
“We experienced a slight dip this year,” Mann said. “We had some big gains at other schools and we had more schools that made (adequate yearly progress) for us than last year, with Baum and Garfield making AYP this year. We expected some of the dip, especially in ISAT, as we move more and more into the Common Core.”
Educators have long said that it’s unrealistic to expect 100 percent of students to perform at grade level, and also that one test doesn’t give a complete picture of student achievement, instead suggesting that a measure of individual students’ progress over the course of the school year provides a far clearer picture.
Common Core standards have been adopted by nearly all the states and most territories to replace the widely varied individual states’ standards. With Common Core, most American students will learn the same skills in the same grades, and assessments, which are still being developed, will measure those skills, allowing for accurate comparisons across state lines. As schools switch to the Common Core standards, and switch curricula to align with those new standards, state tests are lagging behind, and therefore are not necessarily testing the students on what they are actually learning.
State Superintendent Christopher Koch calls this a transition period and warns of even bigger dips statewide on the 2013 tests, though it’s estimated that about 40 percent of the 2013 test will be based on Common Core. Not all Illinois districts have yet implemented Common Core.
A test fully aligned with Common Core is expected in 2014, Decatur’s Mann said, and will be similar to the ACT test that all Illinois high school juniors take as part of the Prairie State Achievement Exam.
Koch also noted in a conference call in the fall that the Prairie State exam tests aptitude rather than skills and results cannot be compared to the ISAT taken by third- through eighth-graders. The plan, he said, is to provide data later this year that will show how students would perform on tests aligned to the Common Core, because the results of the spring 2012 ISATs were down across the board.
“We’re going to implement value tables to measure student progress,” he said. “Those should be implemented in the 2013-14 school year.”
The change in standards requires a change in assessments to ensure accurate results, he said, and the hope is that the new assessments will allow for more realistic comparisons between tests taken in elementary and middle school, and the one taken in high school. There are also plans to create a statewide tool to measure kindergarten readiness, to allow for earlier intervention for children who need a boost in skills before they start school.
Illinois’ goal, he said, is to prepare students for college and career success, and a decline in state test scores was expected in light of the changes in standards and curriculum in 2012.
“No Child Left Behind was not attainable, but it’s a noble goal,” Koch said. “It started as civil rights and evolved into accountability. Kids were not being included and not provided with an adequate education. (The law) continues to bring resources to states to meet those goals, but it caused us to negatively label schools even when they were showing progress.”
Graduation rates in Illinois declined this year due to a change in rules which requires that students graduate in four years with a regular diploma to be counted. Past rules allowed for also counting students who took longer and those who earned alternative diplomas such as a GED.
In Decatur, that rule change meant a drop in graduation rate from 92.4 percent in 2010 to 69.8 percent in 2011 and 60.4 percent in 2012. Illinois’ graduation rate is 82.3 percent. Decatur has a higher poverty rate than the state average of 49 percent, with 66.1 percent of Decatur high school students who qualify as low income. Poverty is associated with lower test performance.
The law is long overdue for reauthorization and will likely look very different once Congress can reach an agreement on changes. Several states, including Illinois, have applied for waivers from the law’s requirements already, and it is likely that 2013 will be the last year when schools will face consequences for failure to meet NCLB goals.
Illinois was approved for a freeze at 2011 levels of 85 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards, though under NCLB, the percentage was to have risen to 92.5 percent in 2012 and 100 percent in 2014. Illinois has not yet been approved for a waiver due to a requirement that teacher evaluations include their students’ progress. The details of that have yet to be worked out.