Changes coming to tests, way schools respond

PAXTON — Fundamental changes to the way student performance is assessed through standardized tests will also mean changes to how school districts are required to address students’ shortcomings.

And progress to implement both  changes is already under way in the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school district, which again last school year failed to meet what is known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), based on results of students’ scores on the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE) and Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT).

Tara Wienke, the district’s director of curriculum, assessment and instruction, said district officials have been aware of the impending changes for quite some time.

Subsequently, PBL has been working for a couple of years to transition away from the Illinois State Learning Standards and into a new assessment method called the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which is expected to replace the state learning standards starting in 2014.

The change means new standardized tests will replace the PSAE and ISAT taken by students in Illinois. The last year of the PSAE in Illinois will be 2014-15, Wienke said. The last year the ISAT will be administered will be spring 2013, she said.

The two tests will be replaced by a new assessment — being created by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) — that tests for students’ abilities that have more relevance to the real world, rather than just their knowledge, Wienke said.

Wienke said the new standards will test for “critical-thinking skills” instead of the “lower-level skills” that the PSAE and ISAT test for.  Also, the test might be administered in steps, with students taking the test as many as four times a year and earning a cumulative score.

Meanwhile, the school board last week approved moving forward with preparing “school improvement plans” for all four district schools, in response to each not meeting AYP last year. But the school improvement plans — which outline how districts and their schools plan to address their students’ shortcomings — will have a different format than they have in years past.

That is because the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) is changing its school improvement report format for all districts and schools in the state. The new format is not yet required to be used until next year, but PBL plans to use the new system anyway this year to get a jump on the to-be-required regulations.

“In the old school improvement reports, or district improvement reports, you would write a two- or three-year plan,” Wienke said. “The new one is more comprehensive. It’s not a two-year or three-year plan. It’s something you revisit annually.”

The school improvement plans are more focused on specific goals that can be addressed in a single year, rather than longer-term goals, Wienke said.

Wienke explained that the new school improvement system will ask districts to assess their progress each year using dozens of possible “indicators.” The indicators have been created by the ISBE using research data from “high-performance” schools in the state.

Each year, “you take a look at each indicator and assess your progress in each indicator,” Wienke said.

The district and its schools also rank indicators based on their priority.

“From there, you assess how difficult it would be to implement (the indicator),” Wienke said, adding that some may require additional staff or involve hiring more staff.

The district and its schools would then choose two or three indicators they believe they can accomplish within the next year.

“So the idea is you just take two or three of the highest-priority things and see those through,” Wienke said. “And once you have that indicator satisfactorily met, that one drops off (the list), and then you take on the next one in line.

“I think it makes good sense.”

Members of PBL’s curriculum committee are currently in the process of assessing the district’s indicators in preparation for completing school improvement plans using the new system for  the district and its four schools.

Officials expect it will be spring before the district is finished and able to submit its plans to the ISBE.

“There’s 50 indicators for the district, and it takes about 30 minutes to assess each indicator,” Wienke said, noting the curriculum committee is meeting every other week.

Wienke said the amount of time devoted to the school improvement plans has allowed for some “good discussion.”

Along with changes to school improvement reports, the state is also planning to change the ISBE’s school report cards, which rate each school and district on a variety of data. Starting next year, school report cards will take into account such things as a district offering dual-credit classes, AP classes and gifted programs, rather than just basing a school’s performance on standardized tests, Wienke said.

“That’s going to be great for us, because we’re doing a lot of things locally, but it just doesn’t always mean you’re going to meet that 92 percent target,” Wienke said, referring to the percentage of students who are required to meet AYP this year.

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