Oakwood Junior High is among a growing number of Illinois schools that, despite having had a perfect track record of making "adequate yearly progress" under the federal No Child Left Behind law, failed to meet the state's tougher learning standards in 2011.
Principal Sam Erwin points out that last year, 91 percent of seventh-graders met or exceeded the state benchmark for math, and 88 percent met or exceeded in reading, while 85 percent of eighth-graders met or exceeded in math, and 82 percent met or exceeded in reading.
Yet because one subgroup of students didn't meet the benchmark, his school was labeled as failing.
"It's frustrating," Erwin said, adding each year staff and students work hard to prepare for the state standardized test used to measure whether schools are making growth. "It's not an excuse. We have to work harder.
"But this is one test at the end of the year, and that's what they measure our success by," he continued. "What the state doesn't understand is there is growth. We see it in the assessments that we're constantly giving throughout the year, and we see it in our classrooms."
The 2011 test scores, released by the Illinois State Board of Education Monday (Oct. 31), show more schools identified for improvement under NCLB. Scores showed 695 districts, or 80 percent, and 2,548 schools — or 65 percent, up from 51 percent in 2010 — failed to make progress.
In Vermilion County, the Armstrong-Ellis pre-K through eighth-grade school district was the only one to meet the state's 85 percent benchmark in reading and math last year, up from 77.5 percent in 2010. Principal Kurt Thornsbrough said 93 percent of students met or exceeded in reading, and 97 percent of students met or exceeded in math.
"If I can hold that, that's my goal," Thornsbrough said, adding that the benchmark will go to 92.5 percent this year. He added at a small school like his, "if I have one student that drops, we don't make AYP, and I don't want that to happen."
A number of schools including Bismarck Elementary, Northeast Elementary in Danville, John Greer Elementary in Hoopeston, Hoopeston Area Middle School, Jamaica Elementary, Jamaica Junior High and Oakwood Elementary also made adequate yearly progress.
The Westville district made the academic early warning list, while the Danville, Hoopeston, Georgetown and Armstrong-Ellis Township High School districts are on academic watch status, according to state data.
Bismarck schools Superintendent Scott Watson was disappointed his district, which made adequate progress last year, didn't this year, and the middle school didn't because a subgroup of students didn't meet benchmarks. But he said what's more important is students did show improvement in both areas. Other area educators also saw gains.
"Our high school's graduation rate (78.5 percent) was the highest in four years," Hoopeston schools Superintendent Hank Hornbeck said.
Area educators said they believe that schools must be held accountable, but they don't believe the test provides an accurate measure of student performance.
"All you're getting is a snap shot," Watson said. "You can't take a snap shot of an entire class and compare it to the class before to see if there's growth. You may have one class of extremely high achievers, and another class that may be low.
"You have to start measuring the growth of individual students," he continued. "That's what we look at in our assessments, students' tests and their work in the classroom."
And "what they look at is math and reading, which is the foundation of everything," Hornbeck added. "But there's so much more to their learning — fine arts, history, writing — that our students do well."
The U.S. Department of Education is considering granting No Child Left Behind waivers to states that agree to certain reform provisions such as adopting more rigorous college and career-ready standards and assessments that measure student growth over time. Illinois looks to apply for a waiver in February, spokesman Matt Vanover said.
"What it will look like will be determined over the next couple of months," he said. "We're not going to do away with accountability. But instead of being held to that unattainable goal of 100 percent by 2014, what we'll more likely be looking at is individual student growth."
Education officials believe the state has a good chance of meeting the criteria for a waiver, spokeswoman Mary Fergus added. In 2010, the state board of education adopted the new Illinois Learning Standards in math and English language arts based on the internationally benchmarked Common Core State Standards. Illinois is a member of the 26-state Partnership for Assessment for College and Careers that's developing new tests aligned to the new standards to better measure student knowledge and growth. The new state test is expected to be ready by the 2014-15 school year.
Local educators said they continue to work on helping more students improve by using up-to-date student data to drive classroom instruction and providing extra instruction and interventions to help students who are behind. They're also using the latest technology to engage students and providing more professional development to help teachers reach students of all academic levels.
The Danville district hired extra teachers at Cannon and East Park elementaries and teaching assistants throughout the district to provide additional support in the classrooms, said Diane Hampel, the district's educational supports programming director. She said it also implemented a new K-2 math curriculum aligned to the new Common Core State Standards and hired math coaches to work with teachers and students.
Georgetown-Ridge Farm High School officials will add incentives to help high school students improve, interim Superintendent Kevin Tate said. Bismarck schools introduced a flex-time period at the day's end to provide extra reading and math instruction to students who need help, and Hoopeston High School's has its Freshmen Academy, aimed at creating a small learning environment within the larger school to help ninth-graders make the transition to the heavier work load and higher expectations and make a connection to the school and their learning.
"The bottom line is, we want to get better," Hornbeck said.