Meade Park Elementary School teacher Sally Smith instructs her students during a recent math class.

Just weeks after releasing the district’s state report card last month, Danville District 118 administrators and principals continue to examine last year’s test results and brainstorm ways to boost student achievement.

Educators have a few more months to review exam material with students before next year’s standardized testing begins.

District 118 elementary and middle school students will take the Illinois Standards Achievement Test in March and high school juniors will take the Prairie State Achievement Exam in April.

Students district-wide will take quizzes, stay after school for tutoring and sharpen test-taking skills in the run-up to the exams.

Meanwhile, amid the focused efforts by students and teachers to raise scores, the fairness of the federally-mandated No Child Left Behind law progress remains in question by both local and state educational leaders.

The NCLB Debate

Debates continue in Washington, D.C., as politicians discuss the merits and mandates of the controversial NCLB law’s reauthorization.

As the national arguments rage, local educators move forward with their efforts to attempt 100 percent success rates for the 2014 deadline.

The law states 100 percent of students must meet or exceed standards that year. Each year until then, another 7.5 percent of students must meet or exceed standards over the previous year in order for districts to remain compliant.

Most educators agree the goal is noble, but unlikely.

“Philosophically, it’s a wonderful notion,” said District 118 Superintendent Nanette Mellen, “but I don’t believe there’s an educator anywhere who thinks that’s going to happen.”

Neither does former District 118 Superintendent David Fields, a member of the Illinois State Board of Education.

“One size just doesn’t fit all; it never has,” he said, referring to the federal progress standards required of all schools.

Mellen and Fields both express frustration for the law’s mandated success rates, which require progress no matter what challenges individual schools — and the children who attend them — face.

“Boys and girls report to school under various situations. Some are certainly further along than others,” Fields said.

The federal law doesn’t recognize some differentiations among students’ individual levels of progress.

For example, South View Middle School special education students made safe harbor targets for their scores and should have made AYP.

But the students’ attendance rate, at 86.3 percent, did not make AYP, so the students scores, therefore, didn’t meet standards. State attendance standards were set at 90 percent for all students.

At a board meeting last month, Mellen decried the unfairness of holding “medically fragile” students to the same attendance expectations as other students.

Other factors that are also out of the district’s control impact academic success, such as mobility rates and poverty levels, Mellen said.

Other districts that don’t serve students constantly moving in and out of town don’t face the same challenges as Danville.

Fields agrees with Mellen that schools should be accountable, but not held to arbitrary progress levels that don’t take individual progress into consideration.

“I think the initial idea of trying to make sure there is an accountability for what we do in our schools across the nation is a noble idea,” he said.

But Fields calls the law’s evaluation methods “punitive.”

Threatening to take away federal funding and to take over schools that fail to meet AYP after a number of years isn’t the way to make sure all students are being served, he said.

“I think what I have a real challenge with is assuming that by any particular day all students are going to be at a particular level,” Fields said.

Holding children with individual education plans (IEPS) in special education classes, or students with limited English proficiency to the same standards as all other kids is unfair, he added.

In more than 40 years as an educator, Fields can’t remember a time before NCLB when standardized testing was as rigid or accountability was so severe.

“It gets down to where federal funds may be withheld, schools may be restructured, the staff and governance of the schools could change ... There are a number of things in place that I think from a federal level they see as pushing the accountability envelope.

“But at the heart of this is a misunderstanding that all youngsters learn at the same rate and at the same pace … Some allowance has to be given to that.”

Many groups across the country are working to let federal lawmakers know that individual factors for kids and districts have to be considered, he said.

The local fight

Danville faces the same challenges as other districts across the state. It isn’t alone in its frustration to remain compliant while providing its students with the best, most well-rounded education possible, Fields said.

Altogether, 30 different countries are represented in Illinois’s nearly 900 school districts, he said.

The demographic backgrounds play a role in student success in other places as well as Danville.

The state, like Danville, has seen an increase in low-income students and an overall growth in enrollment. Statewide, ethnic minorities now make up nearly half the entire student population.

“All these particular changes bring with them challenges for school districts, whether it’s English as a Second Language or low income,” he said.

Year-to-year progress measurements should also be re-evaluated, he said.

Many people gasp at test scores that show declines in a one-year period, but those examining the data should remember that a different group of kids is being tested than the year before. For example, last year’s third-graders aren’t this year’s third-graders, he said.

Fields hopes in the future, school districts will be evaluated on growth models rather than measured against arbitrary federal standards.

“I would be more interested in a growth model ... to push that growth rather than the tremendous focus on the high stakes test,” he said.

“It places so much pressure on the classroom teachers and the school districts to meet those particular standards.”

Mellen, said despite the challenges both within and outside the district, D118 is determined to provide quality education to all students.

“The challenges are great and we are up for them, trying not to be frustrated or discouraged. We believe that no child should be left behind, and also realize that some of the goals though noble, (are unattainable).”


Danville District 118’s students have shown marked academic growth in general student population test scores and within demographic subgroups from 2006 to 2007, but their results still don’t measure up to government standards.

In reading, 60.8 percent of students met or exceeded standards, compared to 62.8 percent last year, a loss of two percentage points. In math, 72.7 percent of students met or exceeded, a jump of 4.7 percentage points over last year’s 68 percent.

District-wide black student reading scores, at 49.1 percent meeting or exceeding, showed a decrease over last year’s score for the demographic, which was 50.9 percent meeting or exceeding.

The district’s graduation rate, which was 71.4 percent, although an increase of .6 percent over 2006, was not high enough for the state minimum guideline of 72 percent.

Special education students’ reading and math scores, which also showed growth over last year of 1.3 percentage points and 2.4 percentage points respectively, were also not high enough according to state standards.

These factors all contributed to the district’s failure to make NCLB’s AYP guidelines.

In spring 2008, all school districts must show an additional 7.5 percent of students meeting and exceeding standards over last year’s benchmarks to comply with No Child Left Behind laws. In other words, 62.5 percent of students must meet or exceed standards compared with this year’s 55 percent.

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