Exam tests schools

By Elena Haliczer

Local high school educators and parents said the Prairie State Achievement Exam does not provide a clear indication of school performance.

“The [PSAE] provides us with one piece of information on how our schools are performing. Using the PSAE purely is not helpful,” said Mark Thurwanger, principal of Sycamore High School.

The exam is administered to students during their junior year. It is a general exam consisting of two parts and takes place over a couple of days. The first part is the ACT and the second is WorkKeys, an applied math and reading comprehension exam generated by the Illinois State Board of Education.

“At Sycamore, we require all juniors to take the exam,” Thurwanger said.

However, like many other high schools in Illinois, Sycamore and DeKalb high schools have policies that prevent some students from taking the exam each year. This potentially could raise the overall scores.

“For students that are assessed as having severe learning issues, we have the Image Test, which has been designed as an alternative test by the state,” Thurwanger said.

Sycamore High School makes its students familiar with the format of the exam. Teachers work with student, using similar types of questions.

“We believe very strongly that our curriculum is focused on Illinois learning standards. We believe because of our strong curriculum overall that we don’t need to cram,” Thurwanger said.

At DeKalb High School, juniors who will take the exam are determined by the number of credits they have earned.

“We began this last year with much approval from guidance counselors and faculty. This is kosher with the state,” said Mary Hawley, assistant principal of curriculum at DeKalb High School. “The [PSAE] is a measure of student learning. If the student hasn’t accomplished the credits, they clearly haven’t had the learning for the exam. They would be tested on things they don’t know.”

Hawley is not sure whether eliminating some students has had much effect on DeKalb High School scores.

“The number of students who don’t take the exam is relatively small,” Hawley said.

Some parents think the PSAE is not a good measure of a school’s performance.

“In all honesty, I don’t know what would be a better measure. I think it’s both important to understand that scoring students quantitatively does not necessarily give a qualitative sense of their learning,” DeKalb resident Mary Shelden said. “Schools, on the other hand, need to be measured in some way. There’s a tension there.”

Some parents question the effectiveness of the assessment because of the variation of policies between schools.

“I think it’s too darn bad. It’s an indicator of how the test system is failing. When schools are required to teach to the test, the test affects the school. You can see why schools would take measures like that. There is something wrong with the system when the test becomes the measure of the school,” Shelden said.