ISAT standards toughen on their way out

Parents should really hear their children out before grounding them this fall. Those ISAT scores might not be as bad as they seem.

That’s thanks to a change in what the state calls “performance levels.” Test scores are grouped into four levels: exceeds standards, meets standards, below standards or academic warning. Many students will find that even as their scores on the ISAT – Illinois Standards Achievement Test – stayed consistent with years past, they’ve dropped out of the grade range they’re used to seeing.

The ISAT annually assesses students in math, reading and science, and it is used in part to determine whether students are meeting state and federal learning accountability measures.

In a stepping-stone move toward replacing the test, the Illinois State Board of Education voted in January to bring the performance levels of the test administered to third- through eighth-graders closer in line with the more harshly graded Prairie State Achievement Exam, or the PSAE, taken by juniors.

“What it does is really helps us better align all the assessments together,” said George Oslovich, assistant superintendent for middle and high school education in Woodstock’s District 200. “It will give us a much better look down the road.”

In 2012, 79 percent of
students who took the ISAT met or exceeded standards in reading, and 86 percent did the same in math. Under the new performance levels, those figures drop to 60 percent.

By contrast, 51 percent of students taking the PSAE met or exceeded standards last year.

Performance levels for the science portion of the ISAT, given to fourth- and seventh-graders only, are staying the same for now. The board is expected to consider new standards this summer.

The state’s move to more rigorous performance levels aligns with the 2010 adoption of the Common Core State Standards for college and career readiness. The state says the new standards are “fewer, clearer and higher” than the old state standards for learning, which were written in 1997.

In place in 45 states, Common Core puts a greater focus on evidence-based learning, and establishes benchmarks for academic progress at each grade level. But shifting the way students learn means the state needed to shift the way students are tested.

For the first time, about 20 percent of questions on this year’s ISAT – administered across the state early this month – are written to the Common Core standards. The plan is to replace the ISAT by 2014-15 with a test compiled solely of questions aligned with the Common Core.

“It takes some time to kind of align to those standards, and that’s sort of the window we’re in right now,” ISBE spokeswoman Mary Fergus said.

Georgeann Mielnik – a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Creekside Middle School in Woodstock, whose career began 38 years ago – said the changes have been a long time coming, but she’s happy with the direction the board is going. The Common Core ultimately helps better prepare students for college and the real world, she said.

“The standards were a bit more basic. Now it’s more application,” Mielnik said. “They’re going to be asking them not only to read, but to analyze, to compare more than one piece of literature. ... Now it’s more higher-level thinking, which we’ve been doing in school.”

Although it’s not final, the state board likely will do away with the ISAT in 2014-15 in favor of tests developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

Some complaints about the current ISAT stem from the gap in time students face before receiving feedback, and the fact the test is merely a snapshot of a student within a given week that fails to show a student’s development through the year. Aligned to the Common Core, the PARCC exams would be administered online and multiple times a year.

“If we take the test early enough, we can change our teaching,” Mielnik said. “We can individualize our lessons a little more for the students we have right now.”

The changes to performance levels haven’t forced Mielnik to alter the way she preparers her students for the ISAT. They prepare all year, even if not directly.

“We have an unwritten policy that we don’t teach the ISAT test,” said Oslovich, who, like Mielnik, views the upcoming changes positively.

“If we just teach well and do our job teaching, the test will take care of itself,” he said.

In Huntley’s District 158, Superintendent John Burkey said the past ISAT performance levels have allowed a majority of students to qualify for the top level of achievement, leaving little room for growth.

“We want high standards,” Burkey said. “We realize cosmetically it might not look as good, but we’re OK with that.”

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