At the Aug. 3 District 65 School Board meeting, several members of the Board said they wanted to set quantifiable, results-oriented targets for the three-year goals adopted by the Board in September 2008 and for the goals contained in the five-year strategic plan adopted by the Board in March 2009. Several members of the Board also said they wanted to use a mix of tests to assess student achievement and growth, rather than relying solely on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT). We strongly support both of these concepts.

At the Aug. 3 meeting, the Board began the process of reviewing “measures” of success proposed by the administration for the 37 goals contained in the strategic plan. Because of time constraints, the Board was able to review the measures for only seven or eight goals. Members of the Board struggled with setting a measurable target for a goal to ensure the curriculum was rigorous and enabled students to discover “big ideas” through critical thinking. They did not consider measures for goals that impact instruction in the classroom, but it is expected that they will resume discussion of targets in September.

The three-year goals and the five-year strategic plan contain many of the same goals and strategies to improve instruction in the classroom. We think the Board should consider them together and set cohesive three- or five-year results-oriented targets for the instructional goals, and set annual benchmarks to assess whether appropriate progress is being made. The Board, of course, should set measurable targets for the other goals as well.

Measurable Targets for Instructional Goals

We think the most important instructional goal is to implement effective differentiated instruction in the classroom. The District has been making the regular classroom the focal point to educate all students. It has pushed interventions for struggling readers into the classroom; it is pushing for more inclusion of students with disabilities into the regular classroom; it plans to provide enrichment for all students in the classroom. The linchpin for all this is effective differentiated instruction.

We understand the administration plans to develop criteria to use in determining whether effective differentiated instruction under the Tomlinson model (the model adopted by the Board last year) is taking place. The Tomlinson model itself defines what effective differentiated instruction should look like in the classroom. We encourage the Board to set a short timeline to develop the criteria, with teachers’ input, and to set a clear target that effective differentiated instruction be taking place in every classroom no later than five years from now. The Board should also set benchmarks to measure annual progress.

There are other goals and strategies that go along with differentiated instruction, including implementing co-teaching and push-in supports, implementing effective interventions using “Response to Intervention,” and implementing technology-mediated instruction. The Board, with the administration’s and teachers’ input, should set a short timeline to develop criteria to use in determining whether these initiatives are being effectively used in the classroom; and set a clear target that they be taking place in every classroom no later than five years from now. The Board should also set benchmarks to measure annual progress.

Another important goal is to provide a “comprehensive staff development program.” This is pivotal to almost all of the District’s academic strategies, including the implementation of differentiated instruction, the implementation of Response to Intervention, the implementation of co-teaching and push-in interventions, the inclusion of students with a disability in the general classroom, and the implementation of technology-mediated instruction.

According to the administration, professional development should be ongoing and intensive, meaning “50 plus hours over a school year on a topic.”

Given the importance of this goal, we think the Board should establish measurable targets to ensure there is effective, intensive, ongoing professional development, including adequate time for workshops and for planning, collaboration, coaching and mentoring. The Board should also establish measurable targets to ensure that principals are enabling learning communities among the teachers in their schools.

We recognize that it may be difficult to determine whether the instructional initiatives are being effectively implemented in the classrooms. But it can and should be done. It may require reviews of teacher lesson plans and classroom observations by either the principals or an independent consultant. Several years ago, the District retained consultants to evaluate the status of differentiated instruction, and in so doing the consultants observed a sampling of classrooms (where teachers had volunteered). Their report provided not only a valuable evaluation of the status, but also provided constructive suggestions for improvement.

We think the Board should ask the administration, with teachers’ input, to recommend how to measure whether the instructional initiatives are in fact being effectively implemented in each classroom. If necessary, the Board should consult with independent experts to assist in defining the assessment process.

Use a Mix of Tests to Measure Student Achievement

Student achievement and growth should also be a measure of success. Several Board members said a mix of tests should be used to evaluate student achievement and growth, rather than relying solely on the ISATs. The administration expressed reservations, but agreed to provide the test data to the Board as part of the achievement report.

We think it is important to use a mix of tests to evaluate student progress, and not be confined to the ISATs. Three studies that we know of have concluded that the Illinois learning standards themselves have deficiencies or are mediocre. A fourth study has concluded that changes made to the ISATs in 2006 made it substantially easier to meet standards. Another study has found that many students who meet standards on the ISATs are not prepared for high school and not on track for college. The Secretary of the United States Department of Education, Arne Duncan, has recently said the ISATs have been “dumb[ed] down.”

In light of this, we think the Board needs to look beyond the ISATs. Keeping tunnel vision on a “dumbed-down” test to measure student achievement and to measure whether students are prepared for high school and beyond is a disservice to our students.

The District currently administers a number of different tests which assess student achievement on a summative basis. The administration has proposed to use “summative achievement data: ISAT, MAP, DRA, ISEL” to assess whether third-graders are reading at grade level. In its teacher-evaluation plan, approved in June, the District will use a mix of tests (including MAP, DRA, and ISEL) which may vary by grade level to evaluate student progress or lack of progress. In explaining why a mix of tests would be used, Superintendent Hardy Murphy said, “There is no one test that is a true indicator of everything a child has learned. So we have a mix of measures to validate progress or lack of progress.”

Evanston Township High School also uses a mix of tests to assess incoming freshmen, including the MAP and EXPLORE tests. While District 65 eighth-graders are showing substantial gains on the ISATs, their performance on the EXPLORE test, a test that is part of the ACT family of tests and that is recommended by the Illinois State Board of Education, has shown no improvement over time.

We encourage the Board to use a mix of tests to evaluate student achievement and whether students are prepared for high school and beyond. The Board should set clear targets using MAP, EXPLORE and other relevant tests.

In addition, the District should evaluate student achievement using data that is more refined than the number of students who “meet” or “exceed” state standards, or who fall into a certain “quartile” or who are at or above “grade level.” More refined breakdowns of the data are necessary to determine whether differentiated instruction is effective and whether it in fact is challenging and enriching all students and providing a rigorous curriculum.

We hope the Board remains open and committed to the challenge to find creative ways to set quantifiable, results-oriented goals for our District.