Test scores dominated a large part of the joint meeting of the District 65 and 202 School Boards held on Jan. 14. A focal point was the difference in how District 65 eighth-graders perform on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) and on the EXPLORE test.

Paul Brinson, director of information services at District 65, presented data showing that District 65 students, particularly black and Hispanic students, have made substantial gains on the ISATs over the past five years. For example, the percentage of black eighth-graders who met standards in reading increased from 43% in 2004 to 73% in 2007. For Hispanic eighth-graders, the percentage increased from 46% in 2004 to 80% in 2007.

Viewed another way, Mr. Brinson said that the percentage of black eighth-graders performing in the top half of students nationally in reading increased from 37% in 2003 to 60% in 2007. For Hispanic students the percentage increased from 44% in 2003 to 71% in 2007.

While the performance of District 65 eighth-graders on the ISAT has improved substantially, they have not shown gains on the EXPLORE test, which is given to eighth-graders each December. Dr. Judith Levinson, director of research, evaluation and assessment at District 202, presented data showing that the average scale score (the standard-based score) for black and Hispanic eighth-graders on the EXPLORE test has been generally flat over the last six years.

On a normative basis, Dr. Levinson reported that the percentage of black eighth-grade students performing in the top half nationally in reading on the EXPLORE test dropped from 50% in 2003 to 49% in 2007. For Hispanic eighth-graders, there was a decrease from 63% in 2003 to 58% in 2007. Dr. Levinson said, “This is a different pattern than what you saw for the ISATs.”

Dr. Levinson also presented results for eighth-graders on the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test, which was given by District 65 in 2007. On that test, 45% of District 65’s black eighth-graders and 43% of the District’s Hispanic eighth-graders performed in the top half nationally in reading. These percentages are 15 and 28 points lower than those for black and Hispanic students on the 2007 ISATs. Researchers used the MAP test in a study called the “Proficiency Illusion” to conclude that a substantial portion of the higher pass rates on the ISAT is due to changes made to the test in 2006. See Oct. 17 issue of the RoundTable.

The table below summarizes the percentage of black and Hispanic eighth-graders who performed in the top half nationally in reading on the ISAT, EXPLORE and MAP tests in 2007:

Test         Black      Hispanic

ISAT          60            71

EXPLORE    49            58

MAP           45            43

District 65 Board member Mary Rita Luecke said, “One of the key issues here is this discrepancy in the EXPLORE test and eighth grade ISATs. They’re both taken by eighth-grade students a few months apart. But we’re seeing very different results.”

“It would be valuable for us to look at and understand what the results of the EXPLORE test tell us about our instructional program and where we want to make changes,” she added.

District 65 Superintendent Hardy Murphy said that the ISATs are the State-mandated tests used to measure progress under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). “The ISATs are more closely aligned with State standards than the EXPLORE test,” he said. “There is a problem with changing our instructional program, which is closely aligned with State standards,” in order to improve performance on the EXPLORE test.

Dr. Murphy added that the EXPLORE test was a normative test which measures how students are performing in relation to other students, and he did not think it would be useful in evaluating the District’s curriculum.

Dr. Levinson acknowledged that the EXPLORE test was a normative test, but said that it is also a standards-based test and that it provides standards-based scores. Dr. Levinson said the EXPLORE test is aligned with the Illinois Learning Standards, that it is directly aligned with the ACT, and that the ACT is given as part of the Prairie State Achievement Tests (PSAEs). The PSAEs are the State-mandated tests used to measure progress under NCLB, and are given to students at the 11th-grade level.

Dr. Levinson added that District 202 uses the EXPLORE test to “identify students who are going to need special interventions, who are at risk of not making it on the Prairie State tests [PSAEs].”

District 202 Board member Omar Khuri asked, “What is the purpose, what is the vision, what is it that District 65 is hoping to do with its students? Is it to prepare them to meet State standards? Is it to prepare them for the next place in their life? If it is – and I believe it is to prepare them for the next place in their life – the next place of life is matriculation into the high school.” He added that the high school attempts to prepare students for college and the job market.

Dr. Murphy said, “Of course the vision is for students to be prepared for success in life.” He said, though, that the State has adopted standards that determine what students should know at various grade levels to be prepared in life, and the State measures how well students are prepared through the ISAT.

An issue is whether the ISAT or EXPLORE is a better measure of preparedness for high school. Dr. Laura Cooper, assistant principal for curriculum and instruction at District 202, said most high schools in the state and virtually all of the high schools in the metropolitan area use EXPLORE because it feeds into the ACT, which is part of the PSAE. She said the ACT has become the predominant college admission test nationally.

Dr. Levinson also presented data showing ETHS 11th-graders results on the 2007 PSAE. Only 33% of black students and 27% of Hispanic students met standards in reading. In math, 35% of black students and 36% of Hispanic students met standards.

District 65 Board member Keith Terry said, “This is a crisis. There are no pointing fingers. I’m embarrassed. … What can we do to make this better? The status quo is no longer acceptable.”

Bonnie Lockhart said, “African-American students are not doing well. The gap is closing at District 65. But in District 202 it seems like it’s widening.”

Addressing why fewer minority students meet standards on the PSAEs than the ISATs, Dr. Levinson said the PSAEs “have very high standards and it is not really well-aligned with ISAT.”

On a statewide basis, the percentage of students who meet standards on the PSAEs is substantially less than the percentage who meet standards on the ISATs. For example, the percentage of black students in the State who met standards in reading dropped from 48% on the 2004 ISATs (as eighth-graders) to 28% on the 2007 PSAEs (as 11th-graders).

Dr. Eric Witherspoon, District 202 superintendent, said, “There is gain, there is measurable gain at ETHS. What is difficult is to accelerate that gain. We’re not closing that gap, or we’re minimally closing the gap. That’s the real challenge. … One thing we’re fond of saying at the high school is, ‘If not here, where? If not now, when?’” Dr. Witherspoon added. “There’s an urgency about this. There’s a huge urgency.”