Urbana principal to take on testing

Urbana principal to take on testing

URBANA – Leal School Principal Becky McCabe has taken a leave of absence for a semester to work at the Illinois State Board of Education with standardized assessment testing.

In her absence, Bridget Maloney, a first-grade teacher at Leal, will serve as acting principal. "We talk every day on the phone, she has the energy and she knows the kids," said McCabe of Maloney.

"This is very different from anything I've done," McCabe said of her work in Springfield. "There are no children around so I can sit on the floor with them and talk to them, but the decisions we make here affect 2.2 million children.

"This is an opportunity that Dr. (Robert) Schiller gave me that improves my leadership skills. I've learned more in four weeks than I have at any other similar period in my life. We have an incredible staff, and we're working hard to make sure tests are reliable, fair and valuable," she added.

In Springfield, McCabe works with the Illinois Standards Achievement Test system that has become important to everyone involved with schools. School scores affect funding because the federal government can penalize schools that fail to make required progress by cutting school aid.

Schools that consistently fail to make required progress must offer parents the opportunity to transfer their children to another school, an action that would affect funding in two ways – aid is based on attendance and the district must pay costs for students who transfer out to other districts.

In a phone interview Thursday, Schiller said he has worked with McCabe, who has been active with the Illinois Principals' Association and represented the organization last year on a statewide task force studying assessment, on how to comply with requirements of No Child Left Behind, a 2002 law that put testing at the center of the federal school agenda.

Schiller said when his former director of assessment took another job this summer, he turned to McCabe for help.

"I reached out to Becky to see if she had an interest in working for a few weeks, and she was kind enough to entertain the idea," he said. "She was a quick study, and she brought in field expertise, the background of knowledge about where we're supposed to be going with these assessments. One thing led to another, and I asked her to extend her tour of duty."

Officially, McCabe asked Superintendent Gene Amberg for a professional leave of absence for six months, and it was granted.

In her new job, McCabe is the link between Illinois schools and Washington administrators who keep an eye on schools' performance.

"We're the department that works with No Child Left Behind to make sure all the data is done well and accurately," she said.

"Our division gets the tests to the schools, they take the test, we make sure the data comes to us, and we send it to the division that analyzes it."

Schiller this week released preliminary data from the 2004 round of testing.

"We're very excited and encourage by the trends we see," said Schiller, who was superintendent, chief executive officer and chief financial officer of the Caddo Parish Public School District at Shreveport, La., before he took the Illinois job in 2002.

"We're seeing progress in multiple years, in every subject and in every grade," he said of the elementary trends. "We're very excited about closing the achievement gap. Everyone should feel good about what's happening in Illinois."

However, Schiller expressed some disappointment in the flat performance of the state's high school students in almost all areas except social studies. His remarks were based on performance on the ISAT, the Prairie State Achievement Exam given to high school juniors, the Illinois Measure of Annual Growth in English and the Illinois Alternative Assessment.

But Schiller, who has been attacked by Gov. Rod Blagojevich ever since Blagojevich took office, said he's very disappointed about the General Assembly's recent action cutting funding for testing, an action that reduces the number of assessment tests given and puts an end to the current program extending achievement testing to new subjects.

"Illinois has had a very effective state assessment program, although recently a number of states have moved ahead of us so I can't say it's the gold standard," Schiller said. "We were in the process of constructing a revised program and where we were taking it would have been the gold standard. Now we have to start all over, and that's disappointing."

He said last year the state's assessment standards earned Illinois an A- grade on Education Week's annual rankings, up from a B- the year before.

"I'll bet you that A- will topple by two grades," Schiller said. "It's taking away a major tool. Also, the state wants to make sure certain things are taught at all schools, and without a state assessment driving that, the responsibility will fall on individual districts. It's like giving your teen-ager an allowance, leaving town and hoping the teen-ager will spend the money on the right things."

McCabe has said standardized tests help teachers evaluate instruction methods that are working and those that aren't. She said the new testing rules also focus educators's attention on learning for all children.

"The legislation pays attention to all kids, nine subgroups," she said. "We're looking at African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, low-income students, special education students, Native Americans. They're all there and we have to pay attention to their learning or we get dinged.

"The New Triers and Napervilles have to pay attention to their learning or they get dinged. That's important," McCabe said.

You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at acook@news-gazette.com.

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