Every April, township students in the junior class sit for one of the school district’s most important tests. The Prairie State Achievement Exam is used by state and federal offices to judge whether a school is fulfilling its obligations. Funding, sanctions and – to a certain extent – a school’s reputation are on the line.

Educators here and across the country have bemoaned the accuracy of using a single standardized test to measure learning. This exam, like any other, is “a snapshot in time,” said District 209 Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart. A more reliable barometer would gauge students’ progress over time, and Proviso’s superintendent said such a measurement would likely show real gains within the district.

“A growth model would be validating to the children and parents,” Collins-Hart said.

Quarterly grades are perhaps the most obvious recurring measurement and at the end of the first marking period this year, almost 250 seniors at Proviso East and Proviso West made the honor roll. When those students took the state exam as juniors in April, fewer than 150 of them demonstrated a solid grasp of the material.

This turnaround in student performance becomes more remarkable – or less plausible – when only the scores from the district’s lowest achieving school are reviewed. Only 47 students in the junior class at Proviso East were doing grade-level work in April, according to state standards. As seniors, 142 of them are on the honor roll.

Collins-Hart said the district has not compared its honor rolls with the results of the state exam, and questioned the validity of doing so. In a statement e-mailed to the Review, the superintendent stood by the students’ marks.

“I am not aware of any analysis that compares quarterly grades to PSAE scores nor do I think the two can be fairly compared,” Collins-Hart said. “The PSAE scores and quarterly grades are two very different measures. They are computed differently. We have a number of students who have done well on the honor roll and their accomplishments should be recognized. Is it so unbelievable that we have nearly 900 students who exhibit academic excellence? I think not. Although our goal is continuous improvement, our schools are filled with outstanding students.”

Collins-Hart said she has not discussed with any of her staff whether students’ grades are being inflated.

Generally, the schools need to do a better job of aligning their curriculum with the material on these high-stakes exams, she said, as currently the two are “not tightly aligned.” For District 209, this doesn’t necessarily mean revamping the material that teachers use in their classes. According to Collins-Hart, a more targeted curriculum is needed, along with a more efficient means of assessing student performance.

“There is no lack of best practices within the district,” Collins-Hart said. “There is a lack of focus.”

Mona Johnson, president of the faculty union in District 209, said the lagging test scores on high-stakes exams have several sources, and it’s not that the curriculum doesn’t cover what is on the tests. Kids coming into the district from any of the 10 feeder communities are often unprepared, said Johnson. Getting a classroom of sometimes 30 or more students learning at the same pace is difficult to the point of making state standards “somewhat impossible” to achieve, she said.

Gains are being made, but teachers and students are essentially playing catch up.

“They’re making big achievements in the classroom that are not reflected on the PSAE,” Johnson said.

At the school board’s Nov. 17 meeting, the executive director for Proviso Area for Exceptional Children, a special education facility in Maywood, said that many eighth-graders who attend District 209 are reading at a third- and fourth-grade level. The director, Terrence Smith, spoke to the board about programs to boost literacy.

According to Johnson, the instruction covers the material that state and federal agencies are interested in, but there’s a lack of consistency from local administrators. For example, teachers were excited about a literacy skills program introduced last year, but an almost revolving door to the superintendent’s office helped kill that, she said.

When Collins-Hart replaced former superintendent Robert Libka in July, it was the fifth change to the office in less than three years.

“What we feel the school needs is consistency in the long-term approach to see achievement rise,” Johnson said on behalf of the union. “As you know, that hasn’t been the case.”

The township’s three public high schools – Proviso East, Proviso West and Proviso Math and Science Academy – do not have a uniform way to develop and exchange information about a particular student. Collins-Hart said she is working to correct that, and in the meantime teachers do make their own assessments of how their classes are progressing.

Earlier this month, Johnson, Collins-Hart and the rest of the district’s teachers met to discuss curriculum alignment. During Monday’s school board meeting, Collins-Hart stressed the need for more consistency in the curriculum, stating that it varies too much from classroom to classroom and campus to campus.

A spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education, Matt Vanover, also described the state’s exam as a snapshot of a student’s knowledge. Though the annual exam and a school’s curriculum should both be based on Illinois Learning Standards – developed by educators from across the state – there are different ways to measure whether that standard is being met.

“Those tests, we do not recommend they be used for promotional purposes,” said Vanover.

Since 2001, fewer and fewer students at Proviso East and West have demonstrated at least a grade-level understanding of their core subjects, according to state testing results. In 2008, merely 13 percent of the junior class at East tested at grade level. At West, the figure is less than 19 percent.

“Students know a lot,” Collins-Hart said of the more than 5,000 kids in the district’s three schools. “The question is, do they know what’s being assessed on the test.”