Elementary and middle school students this week are in the throes of an annual exam used by state and federal agencies to evaluate public schools across Illinois. The ever-increasing standards set by the federal education act, No Child Left Behind, demand that at least 77.5 percent of test takers this year demonstrate no less than a grade-level understanding of their core subjects.

In 2014, every single child that takes the test must meet that standard, according to the legislation.

For several years now, District 91 Superintendent Lou Cavallo has grumbled about what he sees as arbitrary benchmarks created by lawmakers, and he’s certainly not alone. The National Education Association has consistently criticized the act since it was signed into law by President George W. Bush. Cavallo’s ire is drawn not by whatever percentage of students is required to meet a given standard, he said, but by the standard itself.

“What are we comparing our kids to,” Cavallo said.

In Forest Park, each of the district’s schools has set proficiency goals that actually exceed the 77.5 percent threshold used in this year’s Illinois Standards Achievement Test. Those internal goals are based on standards set by the state board of education, as are the proficiency standards used in evaluating performance on the statewide exam.

But at the federal level, said Cavallo, politicians set the bar in an arbitrary fashion that has little to do with how any particular student is progressing. The standardized testing system that’s in place doesn’t do a good job of measuring how much students are learning from year to year, he said. The emphasis is on getting a random group of students to hit a given benchmark.

“The rewrite of NCLB is a couple years overdue,” Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said.

Concerns at the local level with meeting tougher federal standards are tempered somewhat by an ongoing review of No Child Left Behind. There’s no guarantee of how – or if – the rules will be changed, but Cavallo is interested in seeing a measurement that assesses how students are progressing from year to year. Vanover also suggested that a student’s individual growth would be a better standard to use.

Robert Giovannoni, the principal of Field-Stevenson, said the federal legislation is a “one size fits all” approach that doesn’t work. The expectation in 2014 that 100 percent of the kids must be ahead of the curve is somewhat illogical, he said.

“That’s like saying, mathematically, that 100 percent of the kids are going to be above average,” Giovannoni said.

In 2009, not quite 74 percent of Forest Park students met proficiency standards measured by the annual exam. That figure is down from the 74.5 percent of students in 2008 who met those standards.

School board members and administrators in District 91 aren’t averse to using tests as a way to determine how students – and teachers – are performing. In fact, the schools are now testing kids far more often than they have in years past. With the AIMSweb program, K-8 students in Forest Park are assessed at least three times during the school year. That test helps educators gauge how fluently students can read. If a child is struggling, they’re tested more often and teachers are expected to make adjustments to help them catch up.

Jamie Stauder, principal at Garfield School, noted there are also monthly and weekly assessments that give teachers real-time feedback on how their strategies – and ultimately their students – are doing.

“ISATs, in my opinion, tell us what the school is doing, but not what the child is doing,” Stauder said of the annual exam.

Garfield School is one of two in the district this year that won’t administer the annual ISAT because, under a new attendance structure, third-graders no longer attend those schools. It is in the third grade that students begin taking the exam. Betsy Ross, on the south side, is the other school.

Both schools, however, are still held accountable under No Child Left Behind. Scores from the third grade students at Field-Stevenson and Grant-White will reflect on Garfield and Betsy Ross.

Given the district’s new attendance structure, Stauder said she’s particularly interested in how her current crop of kindergarten students perform on the ISAT once they reach third grade. Those scores, she said, will be a referendum on how well her school is preparing kids.

“That’s really going to be a truer picture, at least for me, personally,” Stauder said.

The state is keenly aware of the ongoing discussions in Washington, D.C., said Vanover, but timetables for any changes are difficult to pinpoint. In all likelihood, the use of standardized tests will continue.

“Student testing and accountability will probably still be in whatever version surfaces,” Vanover said.