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Four years ago the District 65 School Board approved a goal to adopt a comprehensive curriculum-based assessment system. “The intent was not only to obtain outcome data for state assessments,” said Paul Brinson, chief information officer, “but also to provide teachers with ongoing information about the progress that students are making in learning the State standards.”

On Oct. 6, the administration presented the School Board with a report on the assessment system used by the District, which includes the Illinois Standard Achievement Test as well as other assessments selected or developed by the District.

In the last ten years, the District has increasingly focused on the importance of using assessment data to identify students who are at risk of failing, to diagnose the instructional needs of these students, to design an effective intervention, and to monitor and adjust the intervention if necessary.

Ongoing assessments are also essential to enable teachers to differentiate instruction in order to challenge each student in the classroom. Under the Tomlinson model of differentiated instruction recommended by the Differentiation and Enrichment Study Committee and approved by the Board in April, teachers must gather information about a student’s knowledge, understanding and skill levels on a regular basis in order to make targeted adjustments to instruction and facilitate flexible grouping of students in the classroom.

Mr. Brinson said, “One of the goals is to have multiple sources of data. It is very bad practice to attempt to make decisions for students from a single point of time or a single source of data.”

The District uses a variety of different assessments to measure reading, math and writing skills. It uses the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association, for reading and math at grades 6-8, and is expanding MAP on a pilot basis to grade 5 this year. The District is discussing whether to expand it to lower grade levels.

Reading Assessments

Many of the assessments used by the District to assess literacy skills are standardized tests, some of which are given to students on an individual basis.

One of the tests was developed by the Illinois State Board of Education and can be used to regularly monitor the development of early literacy skills at grades K-2. Others are research-based tests developed by Pearson Education for grades K-8, designed to provide quick, accurate assessments to help target instruction for students. Still others are benchmark tests and unit tests aligned with the District’s reading textbooks, the Macmillan/Mcgraw-Hill “Treasurers” program.

In addition to using the MAP test to assess literacy skills at the middle school level, the District administers the “Fiction Common Assessment” to sixth, seventh and eighth graders. This test, given in the first week of December, was designed by a committee of District 65 teachers and administrators using the District’s learning standards as a foundation and can help pinpoint any problem area a student is having, said Ellen Fogelberg, District 65’s literacy coordinator. “It mirrors the ISATs and tells us what kids are going to need to be prepared for the ISATs,” she said. “Teachers consider it labor intensive,” Ms. Fogelberg said. “However, they consider it one of the best assessments that we give, too, because it gives them so much information.”

Math Assessments

Suzanne Farrand, math and gifted coordinator, said at the K-5 grade levels, “We want [math] teachers to keep an eye on kids on a daily basis.” She said the new edition of the “Everyday Mathematics” texts contains specific assessment tasks “so that teachers are keeping track of kids on an ongoing basis.”

In addition to using the MAP test at the middle school level, Ms. Farrand said, “Teachers give unit tests and quizzes all along.” She added, “One of the big advantages we have now by having modern textbooks, which we haven’t had for ten years, is the new texts are designed to provide much more ongoing assessment.”

The District uses two standardized tests that are specifically designed to measure algebra readiness, she added.

Writing Assessments

Ms. Fogelberg said the District wants to make sure students understand the writing process and that they develop good writing skills. “The only way we can measure this over time is through a portfolio system. So we keep track of kids’ writing over time. And we do that K-8.”

Ms. Fogelberg said the District also made a conscious change last year to keep students’ writing at school. “We want students to see writing as a work in progress,” she said. “We want them to be doing their own drafting, their own revising, their own editing, and we know it’s really hard when you see your child’s piece of writing with a lot of errors, not to fix it yourself.”

She said parents could review their child’s writing portfolio at parent teacher conferences.

The MAP Tests

The MAP reading and math tests, which are taken on a computer, are used in more than 3,400 school districts nationwide. The tests are aligned with each state’s standards and are often used as an indicator of preparedness for state assessments.

The tests are “unique,” said Mr. Brinson in that they are “adaptive.” The tests dynamically adjust to each student’s performance level. Based on how well a student answered previous questions, the computer program selects a question of appropriate difficulty to display next. NWEA states, “This type of adaptive testing is a better indicator of a student’s true achievement and academic needs than traditional assessment, which is often a single test given to all students and written for the average ability within a grade level.”

Mr. Brinson said the District gives the MAP test to students at grades 6, 7 and 8 in the fall and spring; it is also given to struggling students in the winter. Mr. Brinson said the test will be given on a pilot basis to fifth-graders at five schools this fall, and to all fifth-graders this spring. One drawback in expanding the test is the limited number of computers available to take the test.

“Our teachers and principals at the middle school level have found the MAP assessment to be very useful, and it allows for us to measure student progress over time,” Mr. Brinson said. “And so the idea is to extend it down into the elementary grades so we have additional information.”

“The [math] teachers have found [the MAP test] really very useful because it gives us such detailed information about what children need to learn next,” said Ms. Farrand. “It’s particularly powerful for us to use for struggling students.” She added that at the other end of the spectrum, “We have a lot of kids topping out on the MAP test, particularly at eighth grade.”

“The data that we would gain from [extending MAP into the elementary grades] would be very helpful,” Michael Robey, assistant superintendent said. “You can actually test students from kindergarten all the way up. The consistency of data that we would gain kindergarten through eighth grade would be phenomenal. “

“There is a tension. There’s only so much testing any system can bear,” said Dr. Murphy. “So right now the tension is between the MAP test and the curriculum-based assessments. …We’re having a discussion about which test is going to be more valuable for us going into the future.”

MAP Results Will Not Be Released to the Public

School District 65 administrators do not plan to publicly release District-wide results on the MAP test, Superintendent Hardy Murphy and Chief Information Officer Paul Brinson told the RoundTable. Dr. Murphy said they did not want to lift the data because it would be a distraction from the purpose of using the test as a diagnostic tool. Mr. Brinson said that while the MAP test was a valuable diagnostic tool used by teachers to guide instruction, he would not say it was a great test to measure student achievement.Researchers with the Northwest Evaluation System used the MAP test as a yardstick in a study released last year called the “”Proficiency Illusion”” to conclude that a substantial portion of the higher pass rates on the Illinois Standard Achievement Tests, ISATs, were due to changes made to the test in 2006. Researchers analyzed the results from a group of Illinois schools where almost all students took both the MAP and ISAT tests in both 2003 and 2006; they found that while students made substantial gains between 2003 and 2006 on the ISATs, they did not make comparable gains on the MAP test. They concluded that the number of students who met standards on the 2006 ISATs increased by 12 percent due to changes that made the test easier to meet standards. District 65 administrators have disputed the conclusions of the study and point out that the percentage of District 65 students meeting standards on the ISATs has steadily increased between 2003 and 2008; and in addition, that the percentage of District 65 students performing above the 50th percentile rank nationally, as measured by Stanford 10, which is embedded in the ISATs, has substantially increased over time.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...