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For Decatur educators, state test results one measure of student achievement among many

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Editor's note: This is the first part of a series looking at how Decatur-area public school students performed on state academic tests. See the second part here

DECATUR — Standardized test scores often arrive in stark terms, outlining a student’s academic progress without the many shades and perspectives educators say are necessary to complete a full picture of achievement.

In Illinois, the annual reckoning for the past three years has been Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test given each spring with results released in the fall, setting off questions about performance and plans for improvement in the Decatur School District, which has begun pilot programs to do just that.

Teachers dial down into small groups to promote progress with each achievement level and evaluate their students in a multitude of ways to bring everyone to the same goal: confident, successful students who can build on each year to excel in the next.

“We have a solid foundation from primary (grades),” said Chrissy Petitt, a third-grade teacher at Parsons School, where 40 percent of students met PARCC standards for reading, the best for that grade in Decatur.

This is the third year Illinois public schools have taken the more rigorous PARCC standardized tests, which are used to 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 data, which was released Tuesday, come from tests given last spring, in the 2016-17 school year.

Statewide averages increased this year to 37 percent meeting or exceeding in English/language arts (ELA) and 31.2 percent in math.

Decatur schools’ results showed it performed below the state average this year, with 10.8 percent of students meeting or exceeding overall standards as measured by PARCC. The averages in Decatur were 14.4 percent for ELA and 7.1 percent for math. Although with changes to the test each year, results from previous tests are difficult to compare, they are nonetheless useful, said Josh Peters, director of curriculum and instruction, secondary, for Decatur schools.

“Our philosophy is, regardless of what assessment you use, if we give them the appropriate instruction and assistance they need, and they're growing on the one assessment, we'll see the results on (PARCC),” Peters said. “So even though our results may be lower than some of the area schools, looking at where they were last year is an important thing.”

More than a test

Common Core is a set of academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (ELA), according to the Common Core State Standards Initiative. These learning goals outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. The standards 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.

Forty-two states, the District of Columbia and four territories adopted Common Core beginning in 2013. 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.

On one end in Decatur, Hope Academy had zero students meet the standards in math and a scant 3.2 percent did so in ELA, while at Dennis Lab School students soared past state averages in seventh- and eighth-grade reading, topping 42 percent meeting standards, and Parsons School third-graders achieved 40 percent meeting reading expectations. Garfield Montessori School’s sixth-graders had the best performance in any field with 51.7 percent reaching goals in ELA.

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Third-graders Javier Antele, left, and Jernie Hubbert and work on reading during Power Half Hour Wednesday taught by Chrissy Petitt at Parsons Accelerated School in Decatur.

Decatur students meeting or exceeding standards, combined ELA and math for PARCC:

  • Thomas Jefferson Middle School, 9.8 percent
  • Stephen Decatur Middle School, 5.7 percent
  • Baum Elementary, 15.8 percent
  • Dennis School, 22.7 percent
  • Durfee Magnet School, 4.3 percent
  • Enterprise Elementary, 3.2 percent
  • Franklin Elementary, 7.7 percent
  • French Academy, 6.1 percent
  • Garfield Montessori, 22.2 percent
  • Harris Elementary, 4.3 percent
  • Muffley Elementary, 11.7 percent
  • Oak Grove Elementary, 7 percent
  • Parsons, 15.5 percent
  • Robertson Charter, 3.7 percent
  • South Shores School, 9.1 percent
  • Stevenson School, 8.2 percent 
  • Johns Hill Magnet School, 24.5 percent
  • Hope Academy, 1.6 percent

Both of Owen Connelley's children are doing well, getting straight A’s at Hope Academy, where on the 2016 test, 2.3 percent of Hope students met benchmarks in math and ELA, compared to 1.6 percent in 2017.

“I don't really have any complaint about them,” Connelley said.

However, educators say that no single test gives a complete picture of student achievement, particularly this one, because results come back to districts several months after the test has been given, too long to be of use in addressing deficiencies.

Peters, said the district relies far more on the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test. That test measures a student's academic growth over time, and teachers receive results right away, so they can immediately act on the information and provide help to struggling students.

“Being that PARCC is a onetime assessment at the end of the year, we use MAP currently three times a year,” Peters said.

Teachers concentrate on individual students, not on groups, Peters said, focusing on each student's strengths and weaknesses and addressing those. In some cases, that means grouping students with similar struggles together to work on specific skill gaps.

“To me, I'd be more concerned about a building that was performing here,” Peters said, holding his hand up, “and suddenly dropped down. I know Hope struggled last year, too. Some of the other data we're looking at, Hope is one of the buildings we're feeling really good about because of the growth we're seeing.”

One problem with the PARCC, Decatur Superintendent Paul Fregeau said, is that the test has been significantly changed each year, making it difficult to compare year-to-year results. That's another reason that the district relies on several measures instead of just one.

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Third-grader Landon Thompson, center, raises his board during math class Wednesday taught by Chrissy Petitt at Parsons Accelerated School in Decatur.

“That's hard for people to understand,” Fregeau said. “We had the same thing in (my former district) in Missouri. It's just part of what we do.”

When a student comes into first grade, but academically is at a kindergarten level, if that student reaches first-grade academic skill by the end of the school year, that's a lot of growth, Fregeau said. The problem is, he's still behind his peers, and not ready for second grade as PARCC measures it.

Decatur is taking steps to address deficiencies, with pilot programs in reading, math and writing that will be expanded to the rest of the district next year, Fregeau said.

Staying on track

If children are on track by third grade, generally speaking, chances are they will remain on track throughout their school years. At third grade, 14.5 percent of Decatur’s students met math standards while 10.5 percent met the math mark

Among Decatur elementary schools, Parsons had the best results in third-grade reading, with 40 percent of students meeting or exceeding targets.

Third-grade teachers Petitt and Colleen Veitengruber work together on reading, with Veitengruber taking the higher-level students and Petitt the lower-level kids. Pettit works with the students on basic skills like phonics while Veitengruber takes the high-level readers into novels, character development and other areas they're ready for.

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Third-graders work on math during class Wednesday taught by Chrissy Petitt at Parsons Accelerated School in Decatur.

One notable reason Petitt cites for Parsons' third-grade reading success is the small class sizes they had last year, with only 17 students in her class. This year, she has 27.

“I was able to meet with every group every day last year,” Petitt said. “This year, I can only meet with one of the groups three times a week.”

With guided reading levels, students read books at their level or just a little above it, while teachers work with them to move them to the next level. Reading levels are given letters instead of numbers, and she had students from Level A, which is kindergarten level, through Level R, all in the same room. Focusing on each child's deficits and strengths individually is an important piece of that effort.

At Baum School, math was where third-graders made their mark, with 31.1 percent of students meeting targets.

“We were piloting a new math program at Baum last year at second and third grade, and our third-grade (math) scores were the best of all elementary schools in Decatur, which was huge for us,” said Jewel Grady, an instructional coach at Baum. “We extended it to K-4 this year, but (it's) still in the pilot stage in the district because there are three other programs being piloted and our leadership wants everyone on the same page.”

Baum's staff uses multiple instruments to measure student achievement, including PARCC.

“Other than that, we look at (last year's PARCC) and talk briefly because (the grade level teachers) no longer have those students,” Grady said. “We are hoping to get some trend data so we can look to see if a particular teacher might be weak in teaching a particular subject and do what we can to support them.”

Jeffrey Mannlein, who has a child in Stephen Decatur Middle School and one in MacArthur High School, said the relationships developed with teachers tell him more about his children’s progress than a standardized test by itself.

“For knowing how our kids are doing, I look at grades and their schoolwork, plus talking with the teachers,” Mannlein said. “That is helpful feedback that we can use to help our kids when they need it.”

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect that Dennis Lab School students topped 42 percent meeting state averages in seventh- and eighth-grade reading.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Herald & Review.

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