When North Shore parents recently received their children's ISAT scores, the handouts were often accompanied by a letter warning that the traditionally stellar results had dipped slightly as a result of the state's decision to suddenly test students on the new Common Core standards.
Not to mention, the state dramatically changing the ISAT assessment's grading scale, making it far more difficult for students to meet and exceed standards.
The de facto ISAT disclaimers, which were communicated to parents in letters, emails and at school board meetings, appear to have succeeded in preventing panic among North Shore parents with high expectations, and for whom their school district's and children's standardized test scores have been among the highest in the state.
On the contrary, this year's slight decline in ISAT scores on the North Shore has prompted many area parents to rally behind their neighborhood schools and teachers.
"I think if there's a trend where your child's assessments are consistently low for years, you should pay attention. But if their ISAT scores are up or down by 5 percent one year, who cares?" said Kirsten Engel, a Wilmette parent of three children and an emergency medicine physician. She places relatively little weight on the results of one standardized test.
"Standardized tests are a part of education and play an inevitable role, so it's extra important that our children learn how to take them," said Engel, who recalled the numerous standardized assessment tests she needed to tackle when applying to college, medical school and beyond.
To be sure, Engel said she and her husband are determined to ensure that their own children are not unduly stressed by their elementary school ISAT scores. Instead, the couple uses the annual release of the ISAT results as a starting point for conversations at the family dinner table, being sure to include plenty of praise for achievements as well as realistic goal-setting for the future in areas that could use a bit of improvement.
As predicted by state superintendent Christopher Koch, school districts across Illinois saw their ISAT scores decline in 2013 due to the state raising the bar, making it harder for students to meet and exceed standards.
Melanie Goffen Horowitz, the director of curriculum and instruction for Wilmette School District 39, said the district was fortunate that its scores "did not mirror the state decline following the increased performance expectations and Common Core alignment of question content."
Still, Horowitz said the district's composite score for students meeting and exceeding standards on the ISAT did decrease by 6.4 percent, dropping from 97 percent in 2012 to roughly 91 percent in 2013.
"The state changed the test and changed the test scores," Horowitz said. "So they are comparing a different test with different cut scores, and are asking us to do a longitudinal comparison, which makes us a little uncomfortable."
Horowitz said until the district learns more about the reliability of the data gleaned from the new PARCC test, the district will continue to rely on the Performance Series exams, which are administered independently from the state mandated tests.
District 39 officials have heard few concerns from parents, Horowitz said, due in part to a letter families received in September with their children's ISAT scores, explaining that the slight decline in results was by no means a reflection of a decline in a student's abilities.
"What the state has done is just like a teacher who changes the scale for which students get an 'A' from those with a 90 to 100 percent, to only those with a 95 to 100 percent," Horowitz said.
"I've not heard any concerns at all from parents about this year's ISATs," said Alison Hawley, the director of curriculum and instruction at Winnetka School District 36. "We advised parents with a notice in advance, so there were no surprises."
Like neighboring District 39, officials in District 36 also saw a slight decline in the number of students who met and exceeded standards in 2013. For example, in 2012, District 36 had 98 percent of its students meeting or exceeding standards in both math and reading. In 2013, that number had dropped to 91 percent of students meeting or exceeding in math, and 90 percent meeting or exceeding in reading.
Still, given the culture at District 36 — which does not start "grading" its 1,800 kindergarten through eighth grade students until seventh grade — Hawley said rather than a quantitative snapshot from the state, parents find far more value in receiving detailed, qualitative feedback of their children's progress from the district, including in-person parent-teacher conferences, frequent written reports and comprehensive portfolios of a student's work in the classroom.
"Our district's parents are certainly the greatest advocates for their children, and they desire the highest quality education for them," Hawley said. "But they want us to look at the whole child — their academic abilities, social-emotional growth and physical health. An ISAT score is just data points at a given time."
Wilmette resident Leslie Weyhrich said while she understands the need for improvements at many school districts across the state and nation, such is not the case in her hometown, where even with this year's more rigorous ISAT standards, both District 39 schools and individual students continue to score far above state averages.
"I think all the teachers in my children's schools are already using Common Core standards in the curriculum and the state needs to know — we are already doing OK up here," said Weyhrich, who has two children in Wilmette School District 39 and one at New Trier.