By Bob Skolnik
Overall scores on the state mandated PARCC Exam improved slightly last year for students in Riverside Elementary School District 96 with 56.4 percent of students meeting or exceeding the tough expectations set by the Illinois State Board of Education in 2017 compared to the 55.1 percent who did so in 2016.
District 96 results far surpassed the state as whole, where only 34.1 percent of students met or exceeded expectations.
That overall improvement came despite a contrast in performance between students at the district's four elementary schools. Students at the district's two largest elementary schools, Ames and Central, performed noticeably better than their counterparts at the district's two small elementary schools, Blythe Park and Hollywood.
The test is given annually to third- through eighth-graders in public schools in Illinois.
"There are both celebrations and areas of concern in our student data," said District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye. "We find that there is variability between our buildings, between our classrooms, and we know, certainly between our students."
According to the school report card, 65.6 percent of students at Central and 62.3 percent at Ames are considered ready for the next level, while 45.7 percent of students at Hollywood and 44.1 percent of students at Blythe Park are considered ready for the next level by meeting or exceeding expectations.
Those results came despite Blythe Park and Hollywood having fewer low-income students than Central and Ames. Twenty-two percent of Central students and 19 percent of students at Ames were classified as low income, while 9 percent of students at both Blythe Park and Hollywood were classified as low income.
The state of Illinois divides test results into five categories: exceeded expectations, met expectations, approached expectations, partially met expectations, and did not yet meet expectations.
In many other states the top three categories count as being considered ready for the next level.
"Illinois is very aggressive where it's putting its cut scores," said District 96 Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Merryl Brownlow.
At all District 96 schools, the nebulous middle category of "approaching expectations" is the score attained by the second-largest group of students, trailing only "met expectations."
Blythe Park's results could have been reflected the fact that the school housed a special education co-op classroom, which probably contributed to it having 23 percent of its students being classified as having a disability.
Just two years ago, 58 percent of Blythe Park students met or exceeded expectations. Hollywood also had an even higher percentage if its students classified as having a disability, 27 percent, but that could have been because the school hosted the district's early childhood education program.
The current Hollywood fourth-grade class struggled last year, with 36 percent of students meeting or exceeding expectations as third-graders.
District officials say that they don't know exactly why the larger elementary schools outperformed the smaller schools this year and cautioned that it would be unwise to read very much into one year's results.
Both Blythe Park and Hollywood are just one-section-per-grade schools and are so small that the struggles of just a few kids can bring averages down.
"There's more variation in a small school than a big school," said school board President Jeff Miller. "I don't think you can say too much based on a single year."
Nevertheless, Miller told Brownlow at the Nov. 1 school board meeting that he wants all the district's schools to perform at roughly the same level over time.
"I think it's very, very important that we not have any divergence between the schools," Miller said.
Brownlow said all of the district's schools had areas of strengths and areas where there is cause for concern.
"I think if you look at grade levels within the big schools and grade levels within the small schools, you're going to see celebrations and areas of opportunity or concern in all our schools," Brownlow said.
District 96 has introduced a new math curriculum in elementary schools last year and is introducing a new reading program this year. Brownlow expects the new reading curriculum to make a difference.
"You don't see miracles in a single year, but I'm hoping we do see a greater jump in [English language arts]," Brownlow said.
Because Blythe Park and Hollywood are single-section schools it is difficult for grade level teachers to collaborate and collaboration is especially important when introducing a new curriculum.
Brownlow is working to address that, saying she is trying to implement collaboration across schools.
"You always see achievement improve when teachers have more opportunity to collaborate," Brownlow said.
Test scores also increased slightly at L.J. Hauser Junior High School in 2017, where 11 percent of students exceeded expectations, 43 percent met expectations, 24 percent approached expectations, 15 percent partially met expectations, and 7 percent did not meet expectations.
Those result were a slight improvement from 2016, when 53 percent of Hauser students met or exceeded expectations. In 2017, the combined number was 54 percent.
The nearly 18 percent of Hauser students classified as "low income" had lower scores than the rest of those tested.
Only 1 percent of low-income Hauser students exceeded expectations, while 23 percent met expectations.
The percentage of low-income students in District 96 has nearly doubled over the past five years, going from 9 percent of students in 2013 to 17.5 percent in 2017, a fact that Brownlow noted in her report to the school board at its Nov. 1 meeting.
Brownlow said that she is confident that student achievement will improve across the district as the new, more rigorous curriculum becomes more well-established.