Any student will tell you that when a teacher shifts the curve, it can be tougher to pass the course. That’s a lesson elementary school districts across Illinois learned this year when the Illinois State of Board of Education significantly raised the cut scores needed to meet or exceed state standards on the annual Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) given to all third- through eighth-grade students in Illinois public schools.

For the last six months educators have been preparing parents and others that passing rates would drop significantly this year when the 2013 ISAT results were released. And they did.

Results were officially released Oct. 31, and school districts used to having more than 90 percent of their students meet or exceed state standards found that their passing rates dropped significantly.

Statewide, in 2012 under the old standards, 83 percent of kids taking the ISAT met or exceeded state standards. But in 2013, when the passing score was raised, only 59 percent of students statewide met or exceeded state standards.

One reason the Illinois State Board of Education decided to raise the passing score for elementary school students was to better align ISAT test results with high school test results where standards have been tougher.

“We recognized that we needed to raise the bar,” said Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education. “It was showing like 80 percent of kids were meeting and exceeding in grade school, and then they get to high school and only 50 percent were meeting and exceeding.

“We’re testing at college and career readiness for each grade level,” Fergus added. “You’re supposed to be at a certain point in third grade and fourth grade and fifth grade so that when you get to 11th grade and 12th grade you’re ready for college.”

Standards are being raised in the classroom with the coming implementation of the Common Core curriculum in 2014-15, and the state board wanted those raised expectations reflected in the ISAT results.

“We raised the learning expectations in the classroom, and we raised the performance standards on the test,” Fergus said. “It’s not an easy move. It’s not easy to see scores decline, but our board state Superintendent [Christopher] Koch would say it’s the right thing to do. When you know they’re going to be held to higher standards, why wait?”

In 2012 under the standards then in place, 93 percent of students in Riverside Elementary School District 96 met or exceeded state standards. But this year, with increased cut scores — the scores needed to meet or exceed state standards — 77 percent of District 96 students met or exceeded state standards.

That 16-percent drop was less than the decline statewide. And when grading the 2012 ISATs by the new 2013 cut scores, the 2013 results in District 96 actually show a 1-point improvement in the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the state standards.

“Our scores remained very consistent,” said District 96 Director of Academic Excellence Brian Ganan in a presentation to the school board last month. “We had a similar performance to what’ve we had in the past, so it’s not like as a district, what happened? What happened is that the test and the cut scores changed, and now we need to meet that expectation, which I’m confident that we will.”

District 96 students still performed well above the state average of 59 percent of elementary school students meeting or exceeding the new, tougher 2103 standards.

In Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95 the percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards fell precipitously from 92 percent under the 2012 standards to just 69 percent in 2013 under the new grading scale.

Even when applying the new 2013 cut scores to the results of the 2012 tests the passing rate for District 95 students fell 4 percentage points this year from 73 percent in 2012.

This may be the result of the toughening of the test. In 2013, 20 percent of questions were based on the new Common Core standards that are gradually being introduced.

At Komarek School in North Riverside the percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards dropped by 23 percentage points in 2013 with the introduction of new cut scores. In 2012 under the old grading scale 87 percent of Komarek students met or exceeded state standards, but this year only 64 percent of students made the grade under the new standards.

However, in reality, Komarek students performed almost as well in 2013 as they did in 2012. Applying the new 2013 cut scores to the 2012 test would have resulted in 65 percent of Komarek students making the grade in 2013 if the current cut scores would have been used then.

At Congress Park School in southwestern Brookfield, which is part of LaGrange District 102, the percentage of kids meeting or exceeding state standards fell from 88 percent in 2012 under the old standards to 67 percent in 2013 under the tough new 2013 standards.

And at Lincoln School in southeast Brookfield, which is part of Lyons District 103, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards fell from 78 percent in 2012 to just 49 percent in 2013.

School superintendents say that raising standards is good, but some say that raising the cut scores renders the ISAT less useful for comparative purposes and they question the timing of the change since the ISAT test will go away after 2014 and be replaced by a new test that is still being created.

“I don’t think holding students and student progress to a higher standard is necessarily a bad thing,” said District 95 superintendent Mark Kuzniewski. “The problem I have with changing the cut scores is that the ISAT is the one measure — good, bad or otherwise —that we have to use as comparative data and groups of kids moving forward that newspapers like to write about and people in the community like to hear about.

“The problem is changing the cut score at the same time as changing the test. What we really have now is a measure that is being purported to demonstrate a school’s success that can’t really be compared to past scores.”

Kuzniewski questioned why raise the cut scores now.

“Why is it all of sudden important to raise that bar?” Kuzniewski said. “Is that to explain that the bar that we were using for the last seven, eight years the bar was always low? You change the rules in the middle of the game? I think for a lot of school administrators it’s frustrating.”

Illinois State Board of Education’s school report cards

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