The push to toughen state exams for Illinois grade school students triggered widespread drops in 2013 scores, with hundreds of schools in some of the state's poorest communities seeing performances plunge, test results show.
But some schools in affluent suburbs — from Winnetka and Lake Forest to Hinsdale — saw far less severe declines. Even after the state made it harder to pass reading and math exams for third- through eighth-graders, those schools still posted some impressive results, a Tribune analysis found.
Chicago's top gifted and other selective-enrollment schools also posted extraordinarily high percentages of students passing the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests in 2013.
Even so, parents of some high achievers will be shocked by test results released Thursday as part of the annual School Report Card. The percentage of students in the ISAT's top performance category, "exceeds standards," dropped sharply. Many students accustomed to getting high scores dropped into the "meet standards" category, meaning they passed rather than excelled.
Overall, last spring's test results reflect a new reality in Illinois, where grade school scores were on the rise for more than a decade until the state raised the bar.
The state increased the scores required to pass ISAT math and reading tests by 13 to 30 points, depending on the test and grade, records show. The move caused tens of thousands more students to flunk and even some high-performing schools to drop in stature, according to the test results.
In 2012, 849 schools could brag that 90 percent or more of their students passed reading and math exams. In 2013 only 58 schools can say that.
Educators say that raising the bar has further exposed differences in how students perform at schools in wealthy communities compared with those in disadvantaged communities — a long-standing and hard-to-fix problem.
At Chicago's Robinson Elementary School, a pre-K to grade 3 school where 94 percent of children are poor, Principal Sonja Spiller brought in a retired teacher to help struggling students, arranged for after-school instruction and held a parent workshop.
Still, just 35.2 percent of her third-graders passed reading and math exams — a low performance but still a unique accomplishment. Robinson was the only grade school in the state to increase its passing rate in 2013, testing data show. The year before, only 29.9 percent of students passed those exams.
"It is a challenge, but we just say, 'This is what it is, and we have to push forward,'" Spiller said.
The School Report Card data include everything from test scores to finances and average class sizes at nearly 4,000 schools.
This year's report, officials said, is a revamped version designed to be more consumer-friendly. It includes information on advanced classes and athletic programs as well as awards for students and faculty.
The Tribune reviewed data for more than 3,000 grade schools that had scores for both 2012 and 2013 ISATs. It found that:
The percentage of third- through eighth-grade students who passed their ISAT reading and math exams fell by about 24 points.
The approximately 270 schools with the smallest declines, 12 percentage points or less, had lower percentages of poor and minority students as a group than average. Illinois' school population is 50.6 percent white and 49.9 percent low-income.
Schools with less than a 1 percentage point drop in passing rates were all Chicago schools that have high poverty rates but teach advanced students.
More than 700 schools with the largest declines in scores, 30 to almost 60 percentage point drops in passing rates, as a whole had higher percentages of low-income and minority students than the state average.
Education groups said the test results should prompt a new sense of urgency about fixing troubling gaps in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged districts.
"Clearly, raising the academic bar reveals the gaps between rich and poor kids, and white kids and kids of color, and it raises fundamental questions about whether Illinois is funding schools in the right way," said Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.
The Tribune findings, he said, raise "a lot of questions about what are we going to do to improve the quality of teaching and learning in schools where children are not meeting the bar."
Robin Steans, executive director of the education reform group Advance Illinois, agreed, saying, "People have said the achievement gap was wide, but how many people fully understood that? We've got to figure this out.
"It just can't be that these districts (that are performing poorly) don't know what they're doing. They have a bigger hill to climb. And in many cases, they don't have enough resources to climb that hill. We need to make sure they've got the resources."
Even meeting standards was a challenge in impoverished enclaves of south Cook County, Chicago and struggling downstate communities such as East St. Louis, where one school had the biggest drop in scores in the state — a 57.7 percentage point decrease.
In south Cook's South Holland School District 151, Superintendent Teresa Hill is facing dramatic drops in performance — with one of her schools plummeting 53.5 percentage points.
"It's really hard to kind of explain that," she said.
"It you look back over time in our district, we've gotten better and better" at bringing students to a proficient level, using after-school programs, improvements in the classroom and other methods to help struggling students at least meet the passing bar on ISAT exams, Hill said.
That passing bar is now considerably higher, and Hill said schools where students were already scoring at very high levels had a better chance of maintaining their passing rates.
That held true in north Cook's Northbrook/Glenview School District 30, where the percentage of students passing reading and math at Willowbrook School fell from 95.4 percent to 91 percent — one of the smallest drops in the state. Less than 1 percent of students at the school are low-income.
Principal Jill Weininger said the school doesn't drill students for state tests, opting instead for a rigorous curriculum that doesn't sacrifice art, music and recess.
"It's just good instruction," she said. Her third-graders even increased their scores in reading in 2013, despite the higher passing bar.
The passing requirements did not change in 2013 for the ISAT science exams for fourth- and seventh-graders, and results barely budged, with 80 percent of students passing in 2013, compared with 79.8 in 2012.
Likewise, results for the Prairie State Achievement Examination for 11th-graders were generally stable, with 51.9 percent of juniors passing reading, math and science exams in 2013, up from 51.3 in 2012. For the ACT college entrance exam, public school students in the Class of 2013 posted a composite score of 20.3, slightly below the national average and a dip from 20.6 the prior year.
Most of the focus this year has been on the downturn in ISAT scores, which administrators have been trying to explain to their school boards, parents and communities.
State education officials stress that increasing the passing bar on the grade school exams will better prepare students for even tougher tests beginning this coming spring, as well as for college and careers.
The changes stem from the state's adoption in 2010 of more rigorous Common Core state standards for what students should know in math and English language arts and literacy. In 2013, 20 percent of ISAT test items were based on Common Core concepts, and in the spring, 100 percent of questions will be tied to the Common Core, state officials have said.
Schools and districts need to ensure that children are exposed to the more rigorous Common Core curriculum, Steans of Advance Illinois said.
But progress is spotty in implementing those standards. "We're really behind," Steans said. "We're unevenly tackling that across the state. You have some districts in really good shape, but others aren't."
The Tribune found that ISAT declines could vary dramatically even in the same district.
In Wheaton-based Community Unit School District 200, the predominantly white Longfellow Elementary School had one of the smallest drops in scores in the state, with the percentage of students passing reading and math ISATs falling from 95.1 to 90.8 percent.
In contrast, the district's predominantly Latino Johnson Elementary School in Warrenville plunged 26.8 percentage points in reading and math, with only 54.5 percent of students passing.
Assistant Superintendent Faith Dahlquist said the school's high number of students still mastering English faced challenges in passing the exams.
"We have to get even more effective and urgent about our instruction," she said, "because there's that much more to teach for some of our students who haven't come in with proficient English or outstanding vocabularies."
Illinois has a half-dozen Longfellow schools. In addition to Wheaton's, schools named Longfellow are in Oak Park in west Cook; Buffalo Grove in north Cook; and Harvey in south Cook. Longfellow schools also are located in downstate Rock Island and Marion.
Looking at all those schools' results illustrates how dramatically scores can vary depending on geography and student demographics.
The Wheaton and Buffalo Grove Longfellow schools had the lowest percentage of kids in poverty of the group, and higher than average populations of white students. They had the smallest declines in test scores of the group.
Harvey's Lowell-Longfellow Elementary School's low-income population was highest of the group, with 99 percent of the children considered low-income. Lowell-Longfellow also had the biggest drop in ISAT scores in the group, declining by 39.2 percentage points.
Only 29.7 percent of students passed their reading and math exams.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun