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Illinois achievement exams to pose tougher challenges for students, schools

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 9:48 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — A stellar rise in state test scores has won accolades for Mount Prospect's John Jay Elementary School, including an Illinois "Academic Improvement Award" and a recent congratulatory visit from the state school superintendent.

But the celebrated gains at John Jay and at schools across Illinois are likely to recede quickly.

Hundreds of thousands more grade school students could fail the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests next month because of tougher passing requirements, a Tribune analysis has found.

The consequences are certain to startle parents used to seeing their children pass, create a public relations challenge for schools and trigger questions about how prepared students are to move on to junior high, high school, college and work.

As once-impressive passing rates tumble, a less flattering portrait of Illinois schools is certain to emerge, experts say.

"It is causing some controversy. I've been getting some hate mail," said state School Superintendent Christopher Koch, who helped push through the higher passing bar for third- through eighth-graders taking ISATs in math and reading. The State Board of Education approved the changes late last month.

Koch and other educators and researchers agree that the passing threshold on the exams has been too low, given that students should be mastering higher-level skills as they prepare to take new, tougher state exams in 2014-15.

But raising the bar will not be without consequences. If the higher benchmarks had been in place last year, about 365,000 students would have failed the math ISATs and 372,000 would have flunked the reading exams, according to a Tribune analysis.

That's compared with 129,000 students who failed math and 186,000 who failed reading on the 2012 test. About 900,000 students took each of the exams.

The Tribune also found that while 76 to 88 percent of students passed ISATs across all grades, those figures would have plunged to 56 to 62 percent under the new passing requirements.

Scores would have dropped substantially in a broad spectrum of schools and communities. In affluent Naperville, for example, 88 to 96 percent of students passed ISAT exams in District 203. But those passing rates would have dipped to 77 to 82 percent under the tougher passing requirements.

Chicago Public Schools passing rates would have dropped to below 50 percent in most grades, and at the state's largest junior high school, in Cicero, they would have plummeted below 40 percent, according to the Tribune analysis.

Those projected scores are significant, not only because they could predict how schools might score this year but because the reading and math ISATs have been a key barometer for more than a decade of how well students, schools and districts are doing. The exams have helped parents gauge whether their children are performing at least at grade level, or have fallen behind and need extra help.

`A great disservice'

The state tests also are used to judge schools, a cornerstone in efforts to comply with the federal government's No Child Left Behind standards enacted in 2002.

The law requires students from all backgrounds to pass state exams. If too many children fail, schools can face sanctions. In particular, schools with high poverty rates that fail repeatedly have to provide special tutoring, or even let students transfer to better-performing schools.

Establishing lower passing requirements on state exams helped Illinois and other states avoid sanctions over the years. Illinois even lowered the passing requirement on eighth-grade math ISATs in 2006, before Koch took over as state superintendent.

Some educators question whether the lower bar helped or hurt students who were scoring well but may not have been achieving at a level that would prepare them for college and work.

"Perhaps we've been doing these children a great disservice, quite honestly," said retiring Superintendent Sandra Martin, who has been at the helm of DuPage's Butler School District 53 for nearly a decade. The affluent district has focused for years on getting students to attain the highest level of performance on ISATs rather than simply passing the exams, she said.

Passing rates hit 100 percent last year for almost every grade at the district's Brook Forest Elementary School. But that performance would have dipped slightly in most grades had the higher bar been in place in 2012. Third-grade results would have dropped the most, to a 91 percent passing rate in reading and math, the Tribune found.

That's lower than this year's No Child Left Behind requirement — a 92.5 percent passing rate on reading and math ISATs — so even Brook Forest could be challenged to meet the federal standard.

Only about 1 percent of schools will likely meet that 92.5 percent passing standard, the lowest performance ever, according to a review by Advantage Analytics LLC, a consulting company that crunches data for Butler and other school districts.

The rest will get failing labels — another piece of bad news for districts to pass on to their communities.

"The public perception is hard," said Nancy Wagner, assistant superintendent in Arlington Heights-based School District 59, where ISAT passing rates at John Jay Elementary School are expected to drop precipitously this year.

Just last month, the high-poverty, mostly Latino school was recognized for passing rates that had climbed to 61 to 89 percent on the 2012 ISATs. With the tougher requirements in place, the passing rates would have plunged to 44 to 67 percent, Wagner said.

"I do think we need to raise the bar. ... I do think it is important for kids to be college- and career-ready," Wagner said. "The problem is that this is so public and it is all at once."

Wagner would have preferred the 92.5 percent No Child Left Behind requirement for last year's tests, so there would have been "less shock to our system."

As it stands now, districts will be hit this year with the 92.5 percent requirement, the tougher passing bar on ISATs and harder questions on the exams themselves.

Standing firm

State officials said about 20 percent of ISAT questions will be more difficult, in keeping with new Illinois standards adopted for what students should know.

For now, passing requirements on ISAT science exams for fourth- and seventh-graders won't change — the state is updating science standards. Nor will they change for the 11th-grade Prairie State Achievement Examinations, which educators say are a good tool to gauge whether students are college-ready.

Several states already have raised the bar on state exams and weathered the controversy of plummeting scores.

New York began using tougher requirements in 2010 and Michigan set higher passing scores in 2011. Kentucky overhauled its tests, set new passing scores and gave students tougher exams last year.

Florida made it more difficult to pass the state writing test, then retreated last spring when too many children flunked.

Koch said Illinois will stand firm on the new ISAT passing requirements.

"We're not going to backtrack on this," he said. "We have to move forward."

The state is urging districts to publicize the ISAT changes as soon as possible so parents aren't surprised when they see test results in the fall.

Wagner said District 59 plans to send out a general letter soon, but "it's not going to hit home until (parents) get a letter about their own child's score."

Naperville's Karen Lindflott, a parent who heads District 203's Home & School Association, said she expects the district to inform parents and prepare them for testing changes.

"I'm not concerned," Lindflott said. "They are getting us ready."

Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett sent a letter to parents Jan. 23 signaling what lies ahead.

"By raising the bar on the ISAT, it is likely that scores for students may decrease," she wrote. "However, even if scores do drop for your child, it does not mean they know less than they did before or are less capable than they were in previous years."

High-stakes testing

Chicago will have a particular challenge because several thousand students score at the exact level needed to pass the state exams. They are the most vulnerable to failing under the new passing requirements.

Some schools have homed in on those students because getting them to pass — even at the lowest score possible — helps the school avoid failure and sanctions.

In Michigan, state Education Department spokeswoman Jan Ellis said those schools took a hit when new passing requirements were put in place.

"If you have a huge number of kids just barely making that old cut (passing) score and they move that up, they just drop off," Ellis said.

CPS officials expect that ISAT passing rates will decline initially but will move up as students adjust to higher expectations.

Overall, the ISAT changes come at a time of increasing frustration with mass testing, in Illinois and nationally.

The Chicago Teachers Union recently launched a campaign in support of eliminating standardized tests that are not required by the state.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey and his wife said they are opting out of such tests for their children, though the oldest will take the ISATs.

"We have become alarmed at the incredible increase in high-stakes standardized testing at CPS," the couple wrote in a letter to their children's school. "This year our kindergartner is scheduled to take fourteen standardized tests. Our fourth-grader is scheduled for twenty-four tests. ... It's simply too much, and too much of a drain on scarce resources at our schools."

Koch said he understands the frustrations of school districts struggling with budgets and trying to keep up with the changes in standards, curriculum and testing.

At the same time, he said, "We're doing a lot of things that I do believe are in the best interest of kids."

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