By Tom Holmes
Forest Park elementary students scored below the state average in English language, reading comprehension and math, for the third year in a row.
Only a quarter of Forest Park elementary students met the expectations set by the annual Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test this past school year, compared to an average of 34 percent statewide, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. PARCC is administered in March at all public elementary schools in Illinois.
Students in every grade scored higher in English Language Arts, which tests reading comprehension and English language skills, than they did in math. Scores across grades varied widely. Less than four percent of the district's seventh graders tested as proficient in math; about 17 percent of fifth graders met state standards for math; and nearly 28 percent of third graders tested proficient in math.
Dr. Louis Cavallo, elementary school superintendent, called District 91's test scores "disappointing." Cavallo said he believes the standards PARCC tests for are good, but questioned the test's format, subjects, as well as the timing the district receives its results.
Cavallo said there are seven versions of the computerized PARCC test, each of which asks students the same questions in a different order. He said the different versions ensure that students don't cheat, since they can't peek at their neighboring classmates screen for answers. But when students don't finish the questions within the time limit, they receive no points for that answer. This method unfairly compares District 91 to other school districts because students are being unevenly tested on different concepts within the same subject matter, Cavallo said.
Pearson, the company that sells the exam, also didn't get the test results gathered from last winter until now, Cavallo said. That's too late for District 91 to use the data to make changes in the curriculum for this school year.
Cavallo also noted the exam only tests for math and English language skills. He said it fails to account for District 91's strong arts program, and social and emotional curriculum, which teaches skills like cooperation, collaboration and conflict resolution. These are characteristics employers really want to see, Cavallo said.
"I have to give my staff here and the teachers all kinds of praise," he said. "We know from every professional development model out there that it takes at least three years to get anything well-honed, and ingrained, and done well in a district, especially if you are a veteran teacher because you are rethinking how you've done things for many years."
The Illinois State Board of Education changed the test three years ago. Before the standards were changed, the test measured whether students just answered correctly—not whether they actually understood concepts, Cavallo said. A student could memorize simple addition formulas and score highly, Cavallo said.
But the new standards rely on teachers offering "cognitive guided instruction," Cavallo said. An example of cognitive guided instruction would be teaching kindergarteners to add by having them count the number of blocks in one group, which measure at, say, "three." Then having students count the number of blocks in another group, say "five." The teacher then would ask students to put the two groups of blocks together and count the total. That way, students understand the concept of addition before the word is ever used, he said.
"It's a big shift in thinking for teachers," Cavallo said. "It's teaching math in a different way than they were taught, but we've been working on that."
This year, District 91 also started using FastBridge, a 30-minute test which measures students' math, English language and reading comprehension abilities. Cavallo said the district plans to administer FastBridge in the fall, winter and spring to identify those students who are lagging behind state standards. That way, teachers know to give those students extra attention.
FastBridge also offers five-minute tests, which teachers can use every week. This helpseducators quickly determine if their teaching strategy is working, and helps the districtdemonstrate that students are making progress in subject areas.