The decline in standardized test performance among students in Forest Park School District 91 followed a predictable widespread trend in the 2020-21 academic year, according to the annual Illinois Report Card issued last week.
Fewer D91 students in grades three through eight met or exceeded the state’s standardized testing targets in both English- Language Arts (ELA) and math versus 2018- 19, the last time the tests were taken. Districtwide, 28% of students met or exceeded the Illinois Assessment of Readiness (IAR) marks in ELA, down from 34%, and 14% did the same in math, a dip from 23%.
The metric is broken into five categories, designated from best-toworst as exceeded, met, approached, partially met and did not meet the state standard, and the bottom of the spectrum also painted a dismal picture in D91. In ELA, 21% of students did not meet the standard (up from 16%), and 37% were in that range in math, a major jump from 21% in 2019.
But any data from the 2020-21 school year is statistically less reliable than previous years, since it captures a significantly smaller portion of the student population than is typical. That’s in large part because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, remote learning options and parental concerns for student safety (the state only allowed the test to be taken in person, despite many students opting for remote learning during the school year). The spring assessments captured just 59% of the student population in ELA and 55% in math in the Forest Park elementary and middle-school district. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, at least 98% of students took both tests.
For that reason, D91 Superintendent Elizabeth Alvarez, who was hired in the spring of 2021, downplayed reading too much into the most recent test scores.
“Keep in mind when I think about the 2021 school year, a lot of it is a wash,” she said. “I hate to say it that way but it’s kind of true.”
Alvarez has previously acknowledged some of the work that needs to be done in a district that has suffered from slumping enrollment and flagging test scores in recent years. The percentage of students who met or exceeded state standards lagged behind the state average in 2018-19, and the official enrollment in District 91 sank to just 660 students in the 2020-21 academic year, although that number has rebounded slightly to 704 this year, according to the district.
The measure of so-called student mobility, however, stabilized in 2020-21. That data point tracks students who transfer in or out of the district between the first school day of October and the end of the school year, excluding graduates. District leaders have, in the past, bemoaned the decreasing size of student cohorts as students advance through the district, but student mobility was 6% in 2020-21, right in line with the state average and a three-point dip locally from 2019-20. The 6% mark is the lowest for the district since at least 2014.
One other area Alvarez highlighted from last year was the rate of teacher attendance, with 93% of the district’s teachers claiming fewer than 10 absences during the year. That’s well above the state average (86%) and the highest mark in the district in the last five years.
Alvarez said teachers’ dedication to students during an unprecedented year that included a crash-course in remote learning could have benefits well beyond the end of the pandemic, whenever that comes.
“The positive thing about remote learning [is] the teacher collaboration piece, big time, that came out of it,” Alvarez said. “Working with EL [English language for non-native speakers] or special ed teachers to know how to support students, [and] a lot of times teachers were doing their own thing and not collaborating out of their grade levels. That’s an exciting thing to know the pandemic brought that out.”
The Illinois Report Card also tracks demographic statistics and, as has been the case for many years, District 91’s student population is predominantly Black (45.9%), followed by white students (27%), Hispanic (14.5%), two or more races (8.6%) and Asian (3.9%). But five-year trends show the Black enrollment dropping steadily — it was 52.9% in 2016 — and white enrollment rising, up from 22.3% five years ago.
The district’s achievement gap, however, remains stark, something Alvarez and other school leaders have pointed to as an area of major concern. Black students scored a staggering 43 percentage points worse on the IRA’s ELA test than their white counterparts, and 33 points worse in math. Hispanic students were similarly behind white ones, by 32 percentage points in ELA and 36 points in math.
Alvarez, though, cautioned that inequities in standardized tests can disproportionately impact non-white students, and that the tests themselves are not the sole measure educators use to judge the performance on their students.
“When it comes to assessments, I have to be very well aware that a lot of it can be biased, and I need to always have that lens with me and understand these numbers do not tell the true picture, the whole story of the child,” she said. “When I know I have a high percentage of children of color and I know these tests are biased, I have to take that into consideration.”
“This IAR is not the end-all for me,” Alvarez continued. “Are they prepared for high school? Are they prepared for college or career? … There’s other things we need to take into consideration. We should never rely on one type of data.”
The full Illinois State Report Card is available online at illinoisreportcard.com.