When scores from last spring’s Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) rolled in last month, Chicago Public Schools officials rejoiced.
City students had shown an increase in ISAT scores for the seventh consecutive year. The district’s average of 65.4 percent of its students in grades 3-8 meeting or exceeding state standards was an all-time high but still about 10 percent behind the state average.
“Clearly, we’re happy to see progress at the elementary schools,“ says CPS education chief Barbara Eason-Watkins. “We have seven years of continued improvement.“
But now, Eaton-Watkins says, a tougher task begins. The district‘s efforts will turn to increasing the number of students exceeding state standards, which is a truer indication of the city‘s brightest students and if the city‘s schools are going beyond the state average.
The district will “put the focus more on moving students into exceeding,” Eason-Watkins says. “We want to continue to push.”
Rufus Williams, president of the Chicago Board of Education, is even more direct.
“Meets is not good enough,“ Williams says. “It’s got to be exceed.“
The gap between meeting and exceeding state standards is large. According to 2008 ISAT scores, only 13.1 percent of the city’s elementary school students exceeded state standards.
The gap exists in all grades and in all subject matter.
In math, more than 70 percent of the city’s students met state standards; 14.9 percent exceeded. In grade 5, 68.9 percent met state standards, while just 9 percent exceeded.
Even at some of the city‘s gifted schools, where students must pass entrance examinations, the trend continues.
At Edison Elementary Gifted Regional Center, 99.5 of its students met state standards, while 81.2 exceeded. At Skinner Elementary, where 96.9 percent of its students met state standards, 61.4 percent exceeded, which marked a four-year high.
As the city's test scores have risen, so has the number of students exceeding state standards.
For example, seven years ago, less than 5 percent exceeded state standards in math and science testing. This year, the math and science “exceeding” results are at 14.9 and 8.3 percent, respectively.
“We’re really trying to accentuate exceeding standards,“ says Arne Duncan, CPS chief. “That’s part of the challenge we have.“
Part of the district’s focus on increasing those “exceeding” scores includes providing more training for teachers and increasing the number of teachers who are certified in specialty areas, such as reading, science and math, the main testing areas in the ISAT. Once certified in those areas, teachers provide specialized instruction to students.
“Raise rigor. The biggest thing it involves is a lot of additional coursework for teachers,” Eason-Watkins says. “We’re trying to really push more of our teachers into national board certification.”
At many schools, including Harvard School for Excellence and Sherman School for Excellence, turnaround elementary schools, specific instruction is given to prepare students for the ISAT exams. And once the tests are in, administrators and teachers go over those tests with students and their parents, says Lionel Allen, principal at Sherman.
Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.