By Nona Tepper
In 2018, the Illinois State Board of Education rated Forest Park District 91 "commendable" for the first time, the second-highest designation possible, which 70 percent of districts in the state achieved. D91 administrators were flattered at the high ranking, but "one of the questions that was asked was, 'How are our test scores so low yet we're commendable?' as well as, 'Where do we fall when compared to other districts?'" said Supt. Louis Cavallo at a board of education meeting on Dec. 13.
The Illinois School Report Card offers charted scatter plots comparing how districts with similar racial and economic makeups scored on the annual Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test. At the December meeting, Cavallo explained how D91 compared to similar districts, talked about how individual student groups scored year over year, and talked up what the district is doing to increase PARCC scores. The district aims to raise scores in both English Language Arts (ELA) and Math by 10 percent by 2020.
"The state has remained pretty steady; you're not seeing a lot of growth anywhere, where our scores have sort of inched up in both categories each year," Cavallo said at the meeting. "With some of the things we just got rolling last year and some of the changes that we got rolling this year, we are going to see improvement."
As with most districts across the state, an achievement gap exists between how white students and those of color score on PARCC. However, between 2017 and 2018, D91 was able to cut the distance between white and black students in ELA to 29 percent, down from 37 percent the year before. The achievement gap in math essentially remained steady year over year.
"That's less of a gap; that's some improvement from last year," Cavallo said at the meeting.
Across the board, among racial groups and income status, D91 students also tended to score above comparable districts in ELA, but fell short in math. Only D91's white students deviated from this trend, with white learners scoring above students in similar districts in both subjects, with 57 percent testing as proficient in ELA and 35 percent in math. Twenty-three percent of D91 students are white. The state does not offer a numerical ranking of where D91 falls but instead rates districts via scatter plots on charts.
"Where we are, there are very few districts above us at that point; most districts are below us," Cavallo said. "So in similar districts with the same percentage of white students, they tend to do worse than we do with our white students."
Black students — 51 percent of D91 students are black — likewise scored above their counterparts in comparable districts in ELA, with 28 percent testing as proficient. But they fell short in math, with only 10 percent scoring as proficient, slightly below most districts.
Hispanic students' scores nearly mirror the trends of black students, with 33 percent of Hispanic students testing as proficient in ELA, which is average compared to most districts, while 19 percent scored as proficient in math, below many districts. Thirteen percent of D91 learners identify as Hispanic.
"Math is our sticking point when it comes to pretty much every group; we're above some but not where we would want to be," Cavallo said.
When it comes to students categorized as low-income — 53 percent of D91 students are low-income — D91 was average compared to other districts in ELA, with 29 percent of low-income students scoring proficient. In math, 12 percent of low-income students tested as proficient, which was a little below the average of similar districts.
In order to raise math scores for all students, D91 implemented algebra for the first time for eighth-graders this year, initially expecting only 25 percent of students coming in to be ready for the advanced course. Instead, half of the current eighth-grade class is enrolled in the course, and D91 expects to eventually enroll all eighth-graders in the subject.
The state expectation for students to understand algebra is "much higher than it's been in the past; we've got to push up our expectations," Cavallo said at the meeting.
Math coaches now work in every D91 building, including Forest Park Middle School (FPMS), which didn't have a coach last year.
D91 also implemented a new math series this year among younger grades and, for middle school students, the district has extended the time spent studying math and is piloting a new curriculum.
"We have to make sure that our curriculum is aligned, we did have a lot of work done last year about aligning our curriculum around Common Core standards, [and] we had to revisit that again this year," Cavallo said at the meeting. "We went back and we're looking at, 'Are there gaps?' That's half the issue. The other issue is how we teach them. It's not enough to just cover that standard and say, 'Yes we have covered that standard.' They have to teach the standard in a way where [students] have a deeper understanding because that's the way PARCC is measuring it. That is a huge piece of this. It's not a multiple-choice question. They have to be able to explain their answers."