A change in Illinois standards caused a drop in Oak Park's standardized test scores this year, with the most significant changes among low-income students, minority students and students with disabilities.
The state raised standards in reading and math to more accurately assess how ready students are for ACT tests taken in high school, which help determine college eligibility, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
Before the change, Oak Park School District 97's scores generally improved from year to year for more than a decade, according to school report cards the state issues each year.
Despite the sudden drop, the increased rigor of the new standards is a welcome change, District 97 Superintendent Albert Roberts said.
"If the standard is much higher and our kids fall a little short, they're still better off," Roberts said.
The state evaluates school districts based on what percentage of students meet or exceed score benchmarks on Illinois Standards Achievement Tests. This year, third- to eighth-graders had to score 13 percentage points to 30 percentage points higher, depending on the test and grade, to meet benchmarks.
Had student performance been calculated the same way last year as it was this year, District 97 would have seen a slight increase in the percentage of students meeting reading standards and a slight decrease in students meeting math standards, according to this year's district report card. However, the adjustment meant the number of District 97 students meeting standards plunged 12 percentage points in reading and 17 percentage points in math, according to the report card.
The number of low-income students who passed reading exams dropped 24 percent, and the number who passed math exams dropped 34 percent, according to the data. Low-income students make up 22 percent of the student body, according to the report card.
Black students are the district's largest minority group, making up 23 percent of the student body, according to the data. The number of black students passing reading exams dropped 24 percentage points, while those passing math exams dropped 35 percent, the data show. Hispanic students make up 6 percent of the district population and Asian students make up 4 percent, according to the data.
Students with disabilities, who make up 15 percent of the district population, also fared worse. The number of students with disabilities who passed reading exams dropped 25 percent, and the number who passed math exams dropped 38 percent, according to the data.
"There is, and has been, in Oak Park and across the nation, concern about the differences of success in different subgroups," District 97 Board President Bob Spatz said. "That continues to be a challenge for Oak Park as well as districts across the state or the country."
To improve performance among specific groups, the district focuses on implementing programs that help all students, Spatz said. Many of the efforts, such as initiatives to distribute iPads to every student and to improve access to early-childhood programs, aid struggling students more than others and help close the gap in performance, he said. The district has also tweaked its summer programs to better target students who are behind, he added.
Spatz said the district continues to outperform the state. State reading scores dropped 20 percent this year, while math scores dropped 27 percent, according to the report cards.
Roberts emphasized state test scores are only one way the district measures student performance. The district gives student the Measure of Academic Progress test three times each year to gauge individual student growth, he said.
In addition to testing, the district looks for ways to assess creativity and thought processes, which are sometimes better indicators of intelligence than reading or math comprehension, he said. Responses to writing prompts and the quality of oral reports are examples of those kinds of assessments, he said.
"We need our kids to be problem-solvers of the next generation," he said. "We need them to be communicators."