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Lack of IMAGE test hurts local districts
By Matt Arado | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 10/31/2008 12:03 AM

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Many suburban educators say that there should be an asterisk next to this year's No Child Left Behind results.

The state eliminated the Illinois Measure of Annual Growth in English from this year's tests, which forced students new to the English language to take the same standardized tests as everyone else.

As a result, suburban schools that serve many English-language learners saw their test scores take a hit, especially in reading.

"It looks like our teachers or our students didn't do their jobs, and that's just not the case," said Matt Silverman, director of curriculum and instruction at Mount Prospect-based River Trails District 26. "Our English-language learners had to take a test that wasn't fair or appropriate for them."

Test results released today show that nearly one-third of the state's public schools - 31 percent, or 1,196 schools in all - failed to meet NCLB improvement standards this year. In 2007, 24 percent of public schools failed.

State and local officials attribute the increase in failing schools to NCLB's tougher requirements. This year, 62.5 percent of each school's students had to perform at grade level in math and reading in order for the schools to make "adequate yearly progress." Last year, the passing threshold was 55 percent.

But many local districts say the elimination of the IMAGE was just as big a factor. In Elgin Area School District U-46, for example, 19 of the district's 40 elementary schools failed to make AYP this year. Last year, one elementary school failed.

In Palatine Township Elementary District 15, six of its 15 elementary schools failed. Last year, all of them passed. Similar results occurred in Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300 and Elk Grove Township District 59.

In virtually every instance, the failing schools serve a subgroup of English-language learners, officials said.

NCLB defines "subgroups" as 45 or more students who share specific income, language, racial or learning characteristics. If any one subgroup fails to hit AYP in a given year, the entire school fails.

Statewide, 66 schools and 18 districts failed to make AYP solely because of their subgroups of English-language learners.

The state eliminated the IMAGE because it didn't meet federal accountability standards, state Superintendent Christopher Koch said. Starting with the 2009 tests, the state plans to introduce new accommodations that should make it a better fit for English-language learners.

For instance, a modified version of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test - the main assessment given to students in third through eighth grades - will be available in 2009, Koch said. It will use more-focused English and feature more visual cues. Additional accommodations will be added in future years, including full translation of all math and science items. Similar changes will be made to the Prairie State Achievement Exam, taken by 11th-graders.

Local educators applaud these changes, but they said what is really needed is a test that shows how English-language learners improve over time. In the meantime, some schools are altering their approach to bilingual education so that students can do better on the standardized tests.

"We're not making any radical changes, just sharpening our focus in certain areas," Silverman said.

The issue of IMAGE and NCLB aside, state education officials said elementary students performed well overall on the ISAT this year, with 79.1 percent of students meeting state standards, an increase from 78.7 percent last year. The performance of high school students on the PSAE stayed virtually the same as last year, with 52.5 percent of 11th-graders meeting state standards.