Top-notch test scores

Lisa Depies

Geneseo School District administrators are “very pleased” with recently released state testing results.

“We had quite a few instances where our students scored as high as they ever have,” said Dr. Joni Swanson, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Student scores helped the district make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) after missing the state benchmarks the prior two years.

“We’re no longer on the ‘Needs Improvement’ list,” said Swanson.

District results are based off the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), given to students in grades three, four, five, six, seven and eight, and the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE) given to high-school juniors.

At the elementary level, federal No Child Left Behind regulations stipulated that 62.5 percent of all students tested must meet or exceed established levels of achievement. In the Geneseo district, 88.5 percent of students in grades three through eight tested met the standard in reading; 93.6 percent  of those students met the standard in math; and 93.5 percent of Geneseo fourth and seventh graders met the standards in science.

“The ISAT tests are evaluated using cut scores, which separate student results into four categories: Exceeds Standards, Meets Standards, Below Standards and Academic Warning,” explained Swanson. “In all individual test areas and grade levels, Geneseo students’ scores were better than or equal to the state average for students in the meets and exceeds standards category.

“While larger percentages of students with disabilities continue to score below the state standard for meet or exceeds expected results on the ISAT test, this year, we saw the number of students meeting the standard achievement level rise in all grade levels for reading and all grade levels except fifth and sixth grade for math,” she said.

“In fact, 100 percent of all students with IEPs (Individualized Education Program) met or exceeded the math test standard in third grade. Students with IEPs scored exceptionally well in the ISAT science tests — 88 percent met or exceeded in science in fourth and seventh grades.”

Though not included in the AYP computation, a new writing assessment was implemented for grades five and eight in 2007, after a three-year hiatus. In 2008, the state implemented a writing test for the first time in the sixth grade and, in 2009, a third-grade writing test will be reintroduced, said Swanson.

The number of students meeting or exceeding on the fifth-grade writing test were within two percentage points of last year’s students. Four percent more Geneseo eighth grade students met the writing standard than last year’s students.

The two-day Prairie State Achievement Exam includes the ACT college entrance test, which  includes exams in English language usage, math, reading and science reasoning. As part of the?ACT, a writing sample is required.

Students also complete two work keys exams, one in math the other in reading. A science assessment, which covers topics in life, physical, earth and technological sciences, is administered.

Student results from all parts of the exam are combined to create a composite PSAE score.

“The average composite score for the junior class ACT portion of the Prairie? State exam was 21.5. The overall class average composite score and the average test scores for science reasoning are the highest scores earned by students in Geneseo since the inception of the PSAE, wherein all students in grade 11 have been required to complete the ACT examination,”?said Swanson.

This year, 17 of the 223 students in the 2007-08 junior class earned composite scores ranging from 30 to 35 points on a 36-point scale. Last year, only four students met that level of competency.

In addition to state and federal requirements, Swanson said the district administrators and the board of education have established academic targets for students in the district.

The targets are based on the Explore/PLAN and ACT tests given to eighth grade, freshman, sophomore and junior students.

“There are benchmark scores that students need to achieve to be on track to have the skills and knowledge needed to leave high school and be successful in a two- or four-year school. That has become the benchmark for excellence in this district,” she said.

Although pleased with the district’s scores, Swanson said she hopes to see improvement in the future on the PSAE science reasoning scores.

“That’s our lowest level,” she said. Science reasoning is not a test of science content, but an exam that tests students abilities to think, reason, and analyze and interpret data in a science context.

“It really is a test of thinking skills,” said Swanson, adding preparation for that exam comes from a range of courses. “You learn how to work with charts and data in social studies, math and science and you learn how to read that data in reading classes. It really is an all-over skill.”

Math and reading curriculum changes and improvement have been made throughout the district the past few years, and Swanson said she believes the test results reflect those changes.

“Three years ago, we instituted a new math series in the elementary and middle schools. We’ve had very good results. The students did well on the ISAT tests, and the pre-test and mid-year tests show our students are learning and are better prepared as we’re moving them toward eighth grade,” she said.

“We want to create a situation where more students will be able to successfully complete Algebra I in eighth grade,” she said. “But, they have to have the skill levels leading up to that before they can take a class like that. I’m not saying everyone in eighth grade will be taking Algebra I, but the goal is to get as many prepared to do that as possible.”

By taking Algebra I in middle school, students will be better prepared to take higher level math classes at the high school.

Higher level math and science classes increase a student’s chance of success both on state exams and in college, said Swanson. “It’s not just the content, it’s also the thinking skills required to do the work.”

The district’s reading curriculum also has been evaluated. “We have done a lot more with making our teachers, parents and students more knowledgeable about the levels of reading aptitude that each and every student has so we can target instruction more readily to students’ abilities,” she said.

“The main thing with reading is making sure the students do it and keep doing it. If you’re always being read to, or always having a partner read to you, you don’t get to experience it yourself.

“Starting in third grade, the textbooks become purely non-fiction, informational texts. Students must have the skills necessary for comprehension, so they can make the transition to non-fiction reading. Students really need to be able to comprehend what they’re reading, not just sound pretty when they read,” Swanson explained.

The key in all disciplines is to “keep striving for higher standards.”

“Not only must students have the fundamental skills, but they must also know what to do with those skills,” she said.