March/April 2015

Kerry Glenn is a curriculum specialist at Unity Point School District 140. Maria Deaton is lead mentor and language arts teacher for grades five and six at Unity Point. Lori James-Gross is the Unity Point superintendent.

A new era in educational standards and assessment practice is sweeping into school districts across Illinois. For many districts, the new Illinois Learning Standards (Illinois’ version of Common Core State Standards) are being incorporated into classrooms throughout the state. The new standards are designed to be rigorous, clear and uniform to ensure that students are prepared to be college and career ready. As with any new set of standards, the Illinois Learning Standards come with a new standardized assessment that many students will soon experience: Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

Measuring student achievement in Illinois schools is not a new concept and it has been well documented over the years. In the late 1970s, the state introduced the Illinois Inventory of Educational Progress (IIEP) as a means of collecting information on educational achievement. Results were readily available to teachers and administrators and used in decision-making practices for the betterment of students and school. As learning standards and student expectations changed, so did the testing measure. In 1988, Illinois Goal Assessment Program (IGAP) testing began. Illinois adopted new learning standards in 1997, which led to transition to a new assessment known as the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT). Over the past 17 years, students in grades 3-8 have been tested using ISAT to meet requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Now, teachers and students are preparing to take the newest assessment, known as PARCC.

While there are many critics of the state’s implementation of Common Core State Standards, very few people will argue against the fact that high standards are a worthy goal for the state’s schools. As the inaugural date of PARCC assessment quickly approaches, classroom teachers will be the first to tell you that curricular preparations began months and even years ago. While there has been a shift in the focus of education in order to meet the demands of these new standards and assessments, school districts across the state continue to struggle to find time, resources and funding to implement effective change. Unity Point School, a small rural district in southern Illinois, has faced these challenges and found that the most powerful and ample resources for change lie within their own teachers.

Unity Point School houses roughly 710 pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students and is located Carbondale, home to Southern Illinois University. The college setting provides unique challenges to the school district. Student mobility hovers around 20 percent and about 10 percent of the student population is English Language Learners. Nearly 57 percent of students are considered low income and qualify for free and reduced lunch programs. Despite these many challenges, faculty, staff, administration and school board members are dedicated to providing quality education, with limited funding, and have openly assisted with the transition to the new standards.

While being rigorous and emphasizing depth over breadth, the new Illinois Learning Standards set expectations of what teachers should teach, not how they should teach. Building on the notion that teachers are still in control of their classrooms, Unity Point grade-level teams took on the task of deconstructing the standards. Teachers worked through a self-designed framework that allowed them to deconstruct standards and target specific learning goals and instructional levels. This process began over four years ago and allowed Unity Point’s teachers to engage and interact with the standards at each grade level, while working within their team to ensure a deeper understanding of the expectations (see Figure 1). Teacher leaders emerged from these groups and each has played an important role in moving the district into this transitional phase of education.

Effective leadership must be a joint effort, and it establishes a school-wide vision of commitment to the success of all students. School boards play an important role is this vision. Research in school leadership indicates that when teachers and staff members become involved in meaningful change, students reap the benefits. Turning over the leadership role can be uncomfortable for administration and school boards, but the outcomes speak for themselves. When teachers and students understand what is expected of them, the quality of the educational experience increases tenfold. Unity Point has found this philosophy of leadership to be especially beneficial as the school implements the new learning standards.

As a way to move the district forward, Unity Point’s school board, administration and faculty work together to create a school climate in which educational responsibility is shared and nurtured. This type of atmosphere has allowed teachers to interact and engage with each other and build a network of knowledge and support. As the district continues to tackle the new initiatives of CCSS and PARCC, this teacher leadership is imperative in getting the district moving in the right direction (see Figure 2). Teachers take an active role and lead professional development, so that they can make connections to the standards, the assessments and the students within their district. Teachers and administrators engage in conversations about best practices already occurring in classrooms, and how the standards can be met using these best practices. Teachers are also able to articulate with grade levels both above and below their assignments in order to ensure consistency district-wide. Content-area teachers work together to ensure that the district’s assessments allow students to demonstrate their knowledge of the standards and their readiness to progress through grade levels. Ongoing communication with community, school board, administration and faculty is critically important in moving the district forward.

There is no doubt that the new Illinois Learning Standards and PARCC assessments pose challenges for both teachers and students. However, by working together, Unity Point teachers feel supported by the school community and are ready for the challenges that lie ahead.