Forest Park students underperform on state science exam

Proviso Math and Science Academy students tested above state average

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By Nona Tepper

After nearly two years, the Illinois State Board of Education finally released the 2016 scores for its inaugural science test, and the majority of Forest Park students did not meet state standards. Local Illinois Science Assessment scores also revealed a gap between white and black, low income and non-low-income, and male and female students.

In District 209, only Proviso Math and Science Academy (PMSA) students tested above the state average — 71.7 percent of PMSA students met or exceeded standards, compared to a state average of 40.8 percent. District 91 elementary students did significantly better on the state's science test than they did on the state's annual test of English language, reading and math, called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

"It all has to do with the PARCC exam itself. Every other measure we take, our kids do fairly well," said D91 Supt. Louis Cavallo. "When we look at other measures for everything, stuff our kids take to get into high school, our kids do very well. But we're not doing very well on the PARCC and, talking to other school districts, we've found the standards aren't aligned. What's measured is above and beyond" Common Core learning standards.

Students take the Illinois Science Assessment once per year in the spring in fifth grade, eighth grade, and while taking their first biology course in high school.

In 2016, less than half of D91 fifth-graders, or 48.1 percent, tested as "proficient" in science, below the state average of 57.5 percent. Of those fifth-graders, 25 percent who qualify as low-income — i.e. receiving free or reduced price lunch — met or exceeded state science standards, whereas about 70 percent of non-low-income students tested as proficient. Nearly 73 percent of white fifth-graders met or exceeded standards, while 42.9 percent of black fifth-graders did so.

Cavallo referred to the gap in scores between white and black, and low-income and non-low-income students as the "achievement gap" and said he expects the school board to approve a contract with the National Equity Project at the next board meeting. He said work with the education reform organization will address inequities at D91.

"We cannot make the excuse our black students are underperforming because they're low-income because that gap is less across the board, so we need to look at this and figure it out," Cavallo said.

In eighth grade, 41.5 percent of students tested as proficient, again below the state average of 61.1 percent. The majority of those who passed the exam were white and female — 63.9 percent of eighth-grade girls met or exceeded state standards, while only 23.9 percent of boys tested proficient. Nearly 70 percent of white students were proficient, whereas 31.3 percent of black students met or exceeded state standards.

Cavallo called girls outperforming boys in science a "national trend," although scores in nearby River Forest and Oak Park schools did not follow this pattern.

"We need to do a better job encouraging girls to pursue math and science and not be socially shamed for doing so; it's not unique here, it's everywhere," Cavallo said, noting also that "there is a lot of research, especially around African American males underperforming, especially in the upper grades."

Meanwhile, at PMSA, 71.7 percent of students met or exceeded state science standards, scoring far above the state average of 40.8 percent. But at Proviso East, only 13.4 percent of students were proficient. A spokeswoman for Proviso did not respond to interview requests.

Proviso East's low scores follow a statewide pattern of high-school students scoring below their fifth- and eighth-grade counterparts. The state blames the fall in high-schoolers' scores to a number of factors, including systemic challenges — moving to an integrated, standards-aligned curriculum at the high school level; the increased complexity of the science problems asked; possible differences in the tested pool of students; and the impact of known technical issues with the assessment administration.

Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) officials developed the Illinois Science Assessment (ISA) over a six-month period two years ago after legislators realized they would lose federal funding if they didn't test students on science. After the initial test in 2016, the state's nearly three-year-long budget impasse delayed officials' ability to grade and release the scores.

"The task of creating and implementing a brand new test in six months, in combination with the lack of a state budget for more than two years, greatly impacted the timeline for administering, scoring, and reporting the 2016 ISA," ISBE said in a statement. "The lack of a state budget significantly delayed ISBE's ability to enter into contracts with vendors both to create the test and to score the test. The performance level setting required in the first year of any new assessment also extended the normal timeline for releasing the 2016 ISA scores."

Because state standards hadn't been clearly articulated to districts before the test, 2016 schools scores will not be posted on the Illinois Report Card site. Cavallo said he will post the scores on the D91 website, and scores can also be viewed online at www.isbe.net/ISA.

But the 2016 scores "are so old, and it was given prior to having done anything. They're meaningless; they're what the baseline was before we did anything," Cavallo said. "We'll be able to compare [with 2017 scores] and if we don't see a gain, then we'll have to jump in and try and figure out why."

Cavallo said D91 schools implemented a new science curriculum this year that is more inquiry-based. Kindergarten through fifth-graders now use materials from Amplify Learning, and sixth- through eighth-graders use materials from Activate Learning.

The Illinois State Board of Education has finished grading the 2017 scores and plans to release the results on Feb. 14.

CONTACT: ntepper@wjiinc.com

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