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Coming off a year in which every school in the district met an increasingly stringent performance standard, educators in Forest Park are looking to put together a run of high marks as students sit for the annual Illinois Standards Achievement Test next week.

The road doesn’t get any easier though, as the number of students required to meet grade-level expectations continues to rise. Last year, 55 percent of students had to score well on the test in order for educators to earn passing marks. When this year’s test begins on March 4, more than 62 percent of test takers must demonstrate proficiency. In 2009 that figure rises again and will mandate that 70 percent of kids show that they understand the material.

“It means we have to improve,” Superintendent Lou Cavallo said of the increasing demands. “The status quo isn’t going to cut it.”

Barring a change to the law, every public school student in the country must hit federal proficiency targets by 2014.

The ISAT is a high stakes exam administered under the federal education law, No Child Left Behind. How well students perform can influence a school’s federal funding, and ultimately force administrators to make curriculum and staffing changes.

Largely, District 91 has done well in measuring up to the guidelines put in place by the federal policy, but pockets of the student population have underperformed. The middle school in particular has been plagued with substandard scores that have held the facility back from making “adequate yearly progress” as established under the federal law.

“We hadn’t made it for a couple of years and last year we did,” middle school Assistant Principal Beth Kovacic said. “We’ve been working hard to make improvements.”

Between 2003 and 2006, the middle school did not make AYP, meaning that in a particular demographic or subject area too few students demonstrated a grade-level understanding of the material. In each of those years, math proved to be a stumbling point for black students, according to testing data. Then in 2005, middle school students from low income families also failed to make AYP in math.

In 2006, both blacks and poor students satisfied the requirements to earn the middle school AYP status, but special education students fell short in both reading and math.

School board President Glenn Garlisch said it’s encouraging that changes made to the math curriculum in response to those test scores among black students seem to have had an impact. Given the more recent overhaul of the reading curriculum at the elementary level, Garlisch said he is looking for the ISAT scores to validate these changes as well.

“Of the things we’ve put in place, are we ready to see results yet,” Garlisch asked. “Yes, I hope so.”

Cavallo cautioned parents and members of the public from trying to draw too much from the results of this standardized test. The ISAT is not a strong diagnostic tool, he said, and can be temperamental in smaller districts such as Forest Park’s. With a smaller student body, results can be skewed by a lesser number of test takers.

“Year after year after year if we still see the same deficits, there is a problem with our instruction,” Cavallo said. “But it’s important to remember that we are a very small district and a few kids can really impact that.”

That being said, Cavallo is expecting the district to meet NCLB standards this year. Test scores from 2007 were strong enough to absorb the 2008 expectation that 62.5 percent of students demonstrate proficiency.

In addition to her duties at the middle school, Kovacic also oversees district-wide tests such as the ISAT. The new reading curriculum that Garlisch is hoping to see signs of in students’ scores is perhaps too new, Kovacic said, and such changes will take several years to yield measurable results.

“We’re going to do what’s best for our kids regardless of what the test says,” Kovacic said. “We need to make decisions that are best for our students, not necessarily what’s best for the test.”

High school juniors in Proviso Township District 209 will sit for the Prairie State Achievement Exam early next month. That test is also administered under the federal “No Child” education law. Proviso students historically have done poorly on the exam and in 2007 only 19 percent of test takers demonstrated grade-level proficiency. Statewide, some 52 percent of juniors met proficiency benchmarks.


Correction

A Feb. 27 front page story previewing the standardized tests administered under No Child Left Behind incorrectly reported the start date for the Prairie State Achievement Exam. That test, taken by all high school juniors in Illinois, begins on April 23.