Editor's note: This is the second part of a series looking at how Decatur-area public school students performed on state academic tests. See the first part here.
WARRENSBURG — It's easy to be misled by the latest state test scores of school districts in the surrounding Decatur area, which show that a majority of students here are not meeting or exceeding Illinois' grade level standards.
Even in Monticello, which has one of the best-funded districts in the area, just 53 percent of students reached the standards set by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a group of eight states participating in what amounts to a down-to-the-bone revamping of public education. Illinois is one of them.
In Warrensburg-Latham public schools, there's lots of hope. Scores released last week show that 33 percent of the district’s students met or exceeded the state standards — a significant jump over last year, where that number hit just 24 percent.
"I'm glad that they updated the standards in Illinois, because truly the previous ones were very outdated," said Warrensburg-Latham Superintendent Kristen Kendrick-Weikle.
The percentage of students in third through eighth grades who were able to meet the state's high bar varies widely, and they correlate strongly poverty levels in each district:
- 22.9 percent of Argenta-Oreana students;
- 49.6 percent in Maroa-Forsyth;
- 45.5 percent in Mount Zion;
- 32.1 percent in Sangamon Valley;
- 20.2 for Meridian;
- 32.9 percent of students in Bement.
Common Core is a set of academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy. The standards, adopted by 42 states beginning in 2013, were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career and life, regardless of where they live. PARCC is a partnership among several states to develop assessments that measure whether students are on track to be successful in reaching those Common Core goals.
The new standards are not only more demanding, they break down student performance into a variety of cognitive skills based on an updated scientific understanding of how children's brains develop and what they need to be ready for higher education and life in general.
It's only the third year Illinois public schools have taken the more rigorous PARCC standardized tests, which gauge student performance in third through eighth grades. For the first time, Illinois used the SAT to gauge high-school student performance, rather than the ACT, as it had done for many years. The newest data come from tests given last spring, in the 2016-2017 school year.
All about the data
Behind the scenes, teachers and administrators say the way they do and think of their jobs has shifted significantly in the last five or so years.
The changes could be broken down into two overarching philosophies. One, data is good. Two, children are people with complicated inner lives, and help for issues happening outside the classroom may be the most important.
The way Warrensburg-Latham Middle School math teacher Stephanie Windhorst talks about her lesson planning is reminiscent of Brad Pitt's character in the movie “Moneyball,” a movie about analyzing data to build a successful baseball team. Pitt plays the now-famous Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane.
"Data is huge. Our district focuses on data; we need to have proof," Windhorst said. "That's why we rely on several things: in-class assessments, previous PARCC scores, (results from computer-based classwork), all those data factors we take into account."
Kendrick-Weikle said part of the district’s score jump over the previous year could be explained by an increased focus on getting students used to the computer-based style of testing the PARCC test uses.
"The other big piece that we did last year would be the types of conversations that we had among our staff, and the professional development that went along with that, to make sure the instruction is aligned to the state standards, and their assessments are aligned to that as well," Kendrick-Weikle said.
Windhorst said the three-teacher math department at the middle school now meets regularly to discuss plans for students across grades, and across the years as they move up.
"The administration found that time valuable, gave us the time to work together," Windhorst said.
Kristina Valentine, an English and family and consumer science teacher at Warrensburg-Latham Middle School, worked for several years for the Illinois State Board of Education during the rollout of Common Core standards.
"It's all a trickle-down from the medical profession. You can't look at one person's blood pressure on one day and say, 'You have high blood pressure, so I'm going to medicate you for that,' " Valentine said.
The adjustment means also taking a step back from report cards dotted with letter grades, once the center of teacher evaluation and the main marker for parents to see how their child is doing. "That mindset is now changing — it's not student grades, it's student growth and we need to get them to where they need to be," Valentine said.
"The old school is you always look at the grades, and then I have to take a step back," said Mellisa Stacey, a district parent and president of the elementary school PTA.
Stacey said she's noticed the PARCC standards have brought another level of work for educators. "I think they've done a good job, making it seem seamless. I know it hasn't, because knowing teachers on a personal level, they work their butts off so my kid has a seamless transition," she said.
Stacey and teachers said the homework students bring home might be the most jarring aspect of the new standards for parents.
"It's not how it was when we went to school, and sometimes that causes a little issue with that," said Laura Anderson, Warrensburg-Latham Elementary’s principal.
"I'm a child of the '80s; I get it," Stacey said. "I did math a certain way. There have been times where I am either Googling how to do this problem, or I'm hearing, 'No Mom, that's not the way the teacher taught me to do it.’ "
Stacey said it's enough of an issue the PTA is considering evening events for parents to learn some of the methods themselves.
Part of that, according to fourth-grade teacher Sherry White, is more interaction between students who can help each other out.
"It used be 'I teach, you listen,' — now it's 'I talk, now you talk, and talk to your classmates,' " White said. "Sometimes they learn better from each other. It's fun to listen to the kids (in class) talk now."
Part of the data-based revolution at schools also allows a closer look at factors outside the classroom. State lawmakers passed a new formula in August that determines how much state funding is sent to each district, a process that previously did little to address wealth disparities among districts.
That formula, which was largely shepherded through the statehouse by state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, takes into account the reality that it costs more to educate students who go home to lower-income households.
"Before you can improve their reading and writing and math, you have to learn what makes them tick," said Cody Trigg, principal at Sangamon Valley Middle School. "What are they dealing with at home, what are they dealing with outside of school hours that's affecting the learning process?"
For the 2015-2016 school year, 15 percent more students in elementary and middle school grades met or exceeded the state's standards in the Sangamon Valley district than at Warrensburg-Latham. This past year, Sangamon Valley scored lower, with 5 percent fewer of its students meeting the standards year over year.
"We have increased in free and reduced lunch numbers. Over the last four years, we've gone up 7 percent," Trigg said, adding that as many 65 percent of students live in homes with low enough incomes to be eligible for the federal program that provides lower cost or free lunches.
Trigg said Sangamon Valley is onboard with the move to the PARCC standards, and has invested in new ways to assess students, though the results may take a little longer to appear.
"Sometimes in education we have a solution that's working well," but some can lose faith if the test scores don't show results immediately, Trigg said.
The district, led by the high school, has joined a national program that delves into how school staff can address the effects of trauma outside of school.
Sangamon Valley High School has been designated a "trauma-informed school." The program trains staff and faculty on how to recognize behavior in students that suggest larger personal issues, and how to respond more productively.
"Trauma affects the way the brain takes shape, especially in the younger grades when their brain is still forming," Trigg said, which can have very real effects in the classroom.
Administrators across Macon County all say the state tests are a helpful snapshot of how students are faring, and the data is an important tool for administrators at the state level to gauge how districts are performing over a period of years.
But tests are still tests, and the intimidation some parents and students feel come that time of year isn't likely to disappear anytime soon.
"No parent likes state tests. It's just what it is," Stacey said.
But the PARCC is just one component of a cultural shift in the classroom.
"If students understand that the school is on their side, then they achieve at their optimal performance,” Trigg said. “That's how you get to buy into the system.”
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