Using a new testing program designed to measure whether students grasp the building blocks of literacy, educators in District 91 will be better able to adjust their teaching strategies leading to an overall greater level of fluency and comprehension, according to Superintendent Lou Cavallo.

The information collected with Aimsweb, a program adopted by the district, provides an entirely different set of data than standardized tests or other classroom exams, Cavallo told board members Oct. 8. It is intended to assess teachers more so than students, and will be used to give those at the front of the classroom more immediate feedback on their lessons.

The district began working with the program during the previous school year, but only recently administered the test to students. Those results establish a baseline in skills such as letter recognition and phonetics. Students will be tested a minimum of three times a year. Those struggling with the basic skills that lead to greater fluency and comprehension will be tested more often.

“I don’t want it to be thought of as a substantive evaluation of how our kids are doing, or how our district is doing,” Cavallo said.

It is expected that a student’s scores on the Aimsweb program will be shared with parents. Teachers will be able to point specifically to what the child is doing well, and what needs work. What may be difficult for the general public to grasp is that these scores should not be used to compare one student to another, nor are the results necessarily a reflection of any child’s abilities, said Cavallo.

While discussing the benchmark program with the school board, Joan White, a board member, offered that she immediately began comparing schools within the district.

“It’s hard not to do that,” White said.

As its target level for determining whether a student has a grip on basic reading skills, District 91 is relying on benchmarks established by the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. If 80 percent of the students in a classroom hit that target, the teacher is doing a good job of imparting the foundations for reading, according to Cavallo. If not, the teacher will work to adjust their methods so that more kids understand the lesson.

“It’s monitoring the effectiveness of the instruction,” Cavallo said of the test. “It’s monitoring how well we’re doing.”

That standards gleaned from the ISAT are used to establish a teacher’s effectiveness is not indicative of the district asking its staff to “teach to the test,” Cavallo said. In fact, the superintendent said there’s nothing on the Aimsweb exams that remotely resembles what is asked of students taking the state’s high-stakes test. Using the ISAT as a benchmark gives the district a sense of how well students may perform on that exam, he said, and creates a higher standard within the classrooms.

Overall, board members expressed enthusiasm for the testing program and said it should help teachers adjust on the fly.

“When I saw this, I was absolutely thrilled,” board President Frank Mott said. “This is much more than I expected.”