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Making the Grade

Ohanian Comment: At least the reporter acknowledges that test scores might not be an accurate measure of a school's worth. And here is an important fact that many reporters ignore: Among the area high schools, those scoring below the state standards also have double-digit poverty rates.

At Dunlap High School, bowling, pizza and miniature golf motivated the students to do well on last year's state testing. School officials also changed the curriculum to improve their scores.

The strategies worked. If test scores are the measure of schools - and that's debatable - then Dunlap High School appears to be the best public academic high school in the Tri-County Area.

In Report Cards based on 2003-04 assessments, released for all Illinois public schools last week, Dunlap produced the best Tri-County comprehensive score on ACT tests, at 22.5, though it slipped slightly from last year's score of 23. The state average is 20.

And on the Prairie State Achievement Exam, Dunlap placed first in the percentage of 11th-graders who met or exceeded state standards in both reading and math and placed second in writing among 29 high schools in the area.

Those high scores were not accidental, Dunlap Superintendent Jeanne Williamson said. "We concentrate on improving our test scores. That's important to us."

Assistant Superintendent John Burkey said the high school scores on the Prairie State exam showed the most dramatic increase of all the testing in the district.

The high school has introduced new curriculum, and "there's more awareness of how important those tests are," he said.

"The numbers are tangible. They're not everything, but they're not nothing, either. They do tell part of the story" about a school district, Burkey said.

Dunlap High School Principal Lisa Parker said the students were allowed to choose incentives to motivate them to do well.

"They wanted to get out of school," she said. "That worked for me and the teachers on a committee."

The students who met or exceeded state standards on the Prairie State tests enjoyed a field trip for bowling, miniature golf and pizza, Parker said.

Dunlap's high scores placed it 13th on a list of the top 50 Illinois high schools compiled by the Chicago Sun-Times. Morton and Roanoke-Benson tied for 27th on the list.

Dunlap also graduated 100 percent of its senior class. Only Delavan High School and Fieldcrest High School had similar results in the Tri-County Area.

On the ACT tests, Morton High School was a close second at 22.4, followed by Brimfield at 22.3

Dunlap, Morton and Brimfield share a common link, a low poverty rate for their districts, a pattern usually, though not always, present for schools in the top ranks of the test scores.

Peoria District 150, with 62.4 percent of its students coming from low-income homes, turned in the lowest test scores in the region, with a combined high school score of 18.3 on the ACT. The district also had the lowest of the below average results on the reading, math and writing sections of the Prairie State exam.

Manual High School's ACT score of 15.1 is the lowest in downstate Illinois aside from a charter school in East St. Louis. Manual slipped a half-point from the previous year.

District 150 School Board member Garrie Allen has been looking for ways to restructure Manual.

"It should be reorganized," he said. No decisions have been made yet, he added.

Woodruff High School's score last year also dropped to 16.4, almost a point down from 2002-03.

At Woodruff, 46.3 percent of the students are listed as coming from low-income homes.

None of Peoria's high schools made adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind law.

An analysis of their scores shows black students failing the math tests at Richwoods, and failing both math and reading at Woodruff and Peoria Central. Those students also were economically disadvantaged, the report cards show.

At Manual, with an 84.3 percent poverty rate, all groups failed to meet state standards in both math and reading, the report card shows.

The link between poverty and low test results is well documented and the remedies endlessly debated.

One recent book, "Class and Schools," by Richard Rothstein of Columbia University, notes that international studies of 15-year-olds revealed the gap between the literacy of children of high-status workers such as doctors and those of low-status workers such as taxi drivers is greater in England and Germany than in the United States.

Children living in poverty are more likely to change schools often, and their families lack access to books and other literacy experiences.

Among the area high schools, those scoring below the state standards also have double-digit poverty rates.

Similar patterns held in the grade school results. Of the larger schools, Dunlap and Morton students did well on the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests.

But they were bested by tiny Spring Lake District 606 in Tazewell County. Its 63 students scored a composite of 89.6. Spring Lake also listed the highest administrative salary in the area at $124,800 annually.

In the small schools category, Spring Lake was followed by Tremont District 702, whose 312 students averaged 88.2, then by Limestone-Walters District 316 with 187 students scoring 86.3.

In individual school scores, Peoria District 150's Washington Gifted School did so well that it was named the third best public elementary school in the state in the Chicago Sun-Times rankings of the top 50 schools.

Dunlap and Morton grade school districts topped the larger school districts at 85.3 for Morton and 85.1 for Dunlap.

The lowest ISAT scores were at Pleasant Hill District 69 in Peoria County with 53.2 and Peoria District 150 with 57.4. Pleasant Hill has a poverty rate of 63.8, higher than District 150's.

The success story in Peoria District 150 occurred when four primary schools made adequate yearly progress last year - Harrison, Garfield, Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Jefferson - thanks to third-grade test scores.

Kellar had the best composite ISAT score, at 84.3, followed by Charter Oak at 76.8, Whittier at 76.6 and Northmore/Edison at 74.4.

Only five of the 15 District 150 schools with third-grade scores bested the state average score of 65.9 meeting or exceeding state standards.

Only three of Peoria's middle schools, Washington, Von Steuben and Lindbergh, had composite scores of fifth- and eighth-graders performing above the state average.

Blaine Sumner's score of 23.3 was the lowest of the composite ISAT scores among 41 schools in the Tri-County Area.

A close look at the report cards revealed some anomalies.

Peoria Heights High School's graduation rate of only 57.9, far below the rate for other schools, was a one-year situation, its superintendent Roger Bergia said.

"Some moved out. Some dropped out. In a small school, a few kids could change that percentage," he said. The high school had an enrollment last year of 199 students.

For all its academic success Dunlap District 323 did not make adequate yearly progress, even though all of its schools did make adequate yearly progress. That situation occurred because a small group of special education students did poorly on the reading test, Williamson said.

Because the group was small, the state lumped all the special education students in the district together, so the district - but not the school - did not make adequate yearly progress, she said.

East Peoria High School District 309 had the opposite situation. The school did not make adequate yearly progress but the district made it.

Superintendent Cliff Cobert said the situation was a coding error, which is being appealed. If the appeal is successful, the school will be listed as making adequate yearly progress, he said.

For those wanting detailed information, Northern Illinois University's Interactive Illinois Report Card, at http://iirc.niu.edu, has a complete run of 2003-04 report cards for all schools and districts in Illinois in an accessible format.

Many school districts also post complete report cards on their own Web sites, and the Illinois State Board of Education Web site at www.isbe.state.il.us also has school, district and state report cards.

— Elaine Hopkins
Peoria Journal Star


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