Standardized test scores have been a sensitive topic at the Proviso Township high schools for quite some time. The district has consistently scored among the lowest in the state, with its 2005 school report card showing that only 25.4 percent of students met state standards.

This number was up from 21.2 last year, but down significantly from 2001, when 29.8 percent of students were meeting standards.

For years, Proviso administrators and officials have acknowledged the test score problem, but said that the district starts at a deficit due to inadequate student preparation in the 10 communities that send their middle school students to Proviso high schools.

In 1999, former Superintendent Dale Crawford was quoted responding to that year’s test scores by stating that “it is important to emphasize where we begin and the progress made while students are with us.”

When his firing in August was attributed largely to test scores, Crawford’s successor, Greg Jackson, said that “test scores don’t reflect where the kids are when they come to us and how they are progressing.”

And current board of education president Chris Welch recently said that “we have students coming into our schools reading at a 4th grade level and leaving at a 10th grade level,” again arguing that what seems like poor performance by the district is largely the fault of poor feeder schools.

The feeder school excuse, however, seems be drying up for Proviso, as results from the schools Terra Nova exams, which are used to track students’ progress from 8th to 12th grade, do not reflect favorably upon the district.

The Terra Nova test, published by CTB/McGraw Hill, is a norm-referenced test designed to assess students’ levels of performance at various grade levels. Students at Proviso and many other districts throughout the state are first given the test in 8th grade for placement as freshman, and are tested again in October of each year, using an exam of the same level of difficulty, to determine progress.

Scores show a school district in crisis

According to the latest available results, provided to the Review through a Freedom of Information Act request, Proviso East 12th graders in 2004 tested at the equivalent of a 9.3 grade level, placing them at a national percentile of 25.3 when compared to other students taking the Terra Nova.

As 9th graders in 2001, the same students tested at a 7.1 grade level, which put them just under the 30th percentile nationally.

The previous year’s graduating class fared slightly better, with 12th graders at Proviso East in 2003 scoring at a 9.8 grade level after beginning their high school careers at a 7.2 grade level.

The results are especially concerning in the vocabulary portion of the test, where in 2004 Proviso East 12th graders scored at a 3.8 grade level, and in math comprehension, where they scored at a 4.5 level. These scores place Proviso East students at the 2nd and 1st national percentile, respectively.

The 12th grade scores actually dropped significantly from the same students’ freshman years in 2001, when they had scored at a 6.4 grade level in vocabulary and a 6.9 grade level in math comprehension.

The class of 2003 scored at a 2.8 grade level in vocabulary as seniors, though their math comprehension scores were not provided to the Review.

As freshmen in 2000, they had scored at a 2.4 grade level in vocabulary and a 4.2 grade level in math comprehension.

Spelling scores of students entering the district have also placed them within the 2nd and 3rd grade levels over the past two years, though their 12th grade scores were not provided.

Causes, solutions unclear

According to former Superintendent Dale Crawford, the Terra Nova exams were once a bright spot that the district would point to when criticized for its other test scores.

One particular cause for optimism, he said, was that all minority groups except Asians regularly scored above national averages.

A breakdown of the more recent scores by ethnicity was not provided to the Review.

Deputy Superintendent Kelvin Gilchrist acknowledged the recent poor performance at the district’s October board meeting, and said he thought at least part of the problem was lack of effort. Since the Terra Nova scores are not posted on transcripts, he said, students do not take them seriously and their performance does not reflect their actual potential.

“Are they actually getting dumber as they go through high school? I submit that they’re not…if I’m a senior, why do I care?,” he said.

Still, Gilchrist acknowledged that Proviso students’ scores compare poorly even in comparison to other seniors nationwide. He said that he does not know what measures other districts have taken to get students to take the tests seriously.

Students’ attitudes toward the Terra Novas, Gilchrist said, also affects their performance on other standardized tests. “By the time a child reaches their junior and senior year and takes the ACT, they need to have practice taking tests seriously. By their junior year, it’s too late.”

At the October meeting, Gilchrist proposed to have students “held back” if they did not show improvement on the exams from year to year. Though the students actually would move on to the next grade level, their student IDs would not reflect their advancement.

Gilchrist said he hoped this proposal, which the board has not yet voted on, would provide the peer pressure necessary for students to give the tests their best effort.

He said that a committee would soon be formed to discuss that proposal and other ideas for improving Terra Nova scores, including a greater concentration on vocabulary in higher grade levels.

Still, critics including board member Charles Flowers were skeptical of Gilchrist’s ideas, stating that the poor performance on the Terra Novas, like the poor performance on other tests, was related to inexperienced teachers. Gilchrist acknowledged that teaching was a long-term problem, but said that dealing directly with students was the immediate solution.

According to the school report card, an average Proviso teacher has 12.5 years experience, compared to a state average of 13.6 years. Nearly half of the 52 teachers the board voted to hire this year had no experience. Chief Education Officer Robert Libka acknowledged at that board meeting that the district had been unable to attract more experienced teachers due to its reputation.

According to the latest available data from the 2003-2004 school year, the district has an operating expenditure per pupil of $14,092, significantly above the state average of $8,786. The portion of this figure devoted to instruction is $6,984, compared to a state average of $5,216.

Libka did not return phone calls for comment. A discussion of standardized test scores was on the agenda for the November board of education meeting, but was postponed after Libka said that further analysis was necessary before discussing the scores.