The Illinois PTA and the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) co-hosted a back-to-school webinar for the second time on September 23, 2015. The webinar featured Illinois PTA president Matthew John Rodriguez, new Illinois state superintendent Dr. Tony Smith, and ISBE assistant superintendent for the Center for Language and Early Child Development Reyna Hernandez. Here are the top five items from the webinar.

  1. Smith highlighted his five key areas of focus. These five areas are what he feels are essential for providing a quality education to the students of Illinois. Those five are:
    • Money: Establish an adequate and equitable education finance system.
    • Quality: Have a common definition of, and fair access to, quality education.
    • Autonomy: Maximize district autonomy to provide quality education to all families.
    • Competency: Encourage competency-based learning.
    • Community: Districts and schools as centers of healthy communities.

Dr. Smith placed extra emphasis on the final two points. With competency-based learning, students proceed at their own pace. That means that students who have already mastered material or who do so quickly can move forward without waiting for their peers to catch up. Some schools are already doing this in a small way, with some eighth-grade students earning high school credit for high school level classes.

Dr. Smith also stated several times that he believes healthy schools are the cornerstone of healthy communities. If we want our communities to succeed, it is vital that our schools and our students have the resources and support to be successful as well.

  1. Family engagement is a key issue for ISBE. If there was one overarching message from the back-to-school webinar, it was the importance of family engagement for student success. Both Dr. Smith and Ms. Hernandez talked extensively about ISBE’s efforts to improve Illinois school’s family engagement activities. ISBE has developed a Family Engagement Framework to help schools with this process. The Regional Offices of Education are offering school and district teams trainings based on this framework. ISBE also has a Family Engagement Fact Sheet that includes questions for families to consider, ideas for how families can help, and resources for families to start conversations with their child’s teachers and school leaders.

President Rodriguez followed up ISBE’s discussion of family engagement by covering PTA’s National Standards for Family-School Partnerships. These six standards align will with the four standards in the ISBE Family Engagement Framework, in part through Illinois PTA advocacy in shaping the framework. For PTAs looking for an easy and effective way to use the National Standards for Family-School Partnerships, it is not too late to sign up for this year’s National PTA School of Excellence program. The deadline to sign up is October 15, 2015. PTAs receive a Getting Started Guide to walk them through the process and conduct a survey of their school community by November 1, 2015. The survey provides the PTA with a customized Roadmap to Excellence containing recommendations that correspond to the school-specific results of the survey. PTAs then choose one of three focus areas (arts in education, health and safety, or family engagement), implement the suggestions from the Roadmap in that area, and submit a final application by June 1, 2016. PTAs completing the process receive a toolkit to celebrate their success. Sign up by October 15.

  1. The PARCC assessment promises to help students more than any assessment in the past. ISBE released preliminary statewide scores from this past spring’s PARCC assessment last week, so a focus on what PARCC means for Illinois students was not surprising. Dr. Smith stated several times that no student should be judged by a single test score. The PARCC assessment is a shift in how Illinois assesses students, with a focus on preparation for the next step in their education rather than a look back at what they’ve learned. ISBE has launched PARCC Place as a clearinghouse for information on assessment in Illinois.

This year’s PARCC scores will serve as a baseline moving forward, and when parents receive their student’s score report later this fall, the information provided will help to initiate conversations with their child’s teacher on how best to help that student succeed. Also coming later this fall is the release of some of the questions from the PARCC assessment. These questions will allow teachers to build quick formative assessments on any of the standards to see how much students understand and where they need additional support.

Next year’s PARCC assessment will see some changes. There will be a single testing window closer to the end of the year, rather than the two windows used this year. In addition, the total number of modules will be reduced for both English/Language Arts and Math, which means that less time will be required for the assessment. Scores will be available much faster as well, since this year’s scores were delayed by the need to determine the threshold levels for each of the five categories. For students taking the online tests, it means teachers may receive feedback on how students have done before the end of the school year.

  1. New science assessments are coming…sometime. Illinois adopted the Next Generation Science Standards in 2014. Like the New Illinois Learning Standards in English/Language Arts and Math, these standards were developed in collaboration with several other states. Illinois educators played a significant part in developing these standards that aim to overhaul how science is taught. The key shift is teaching science not as memorization of disconnected facts but as a holistic network of integrated and interrelated concepts.

Along with new standards comes a new assessment. Illinois partnered with Washington DC schools to develop the new science assessment that was aligned with the new standards. A draft plan for science assessment has been submitted to the US Department of Education. The plan calls for students to take the new science assessment in the fifth, eighth, and tenth grades. The assessment would take 90 minutes or less. The plan calls for the initial science assessment to take place this coming spring, but there’s a stumbling block in the way—the lack of an Illinois state budget. While the governor and legislature approved the funding for schools, allowing them to open on time this fall, state agencies (such as ISBE) have not been funded yet. Once the budget picture clears up, the status of the new science assessments will be clearer as well.

  1. There is a tremendous amount of information available to help families support their students. The information families will receive from the new PARCC assessment on where their student is successful and where they are struggling is just one of the new resources for families. The award-winning Illinois School Report Card provides additional information for families on how their school and district are performing. The new report card doesn’t just cover the results of assessments, but also includes information on school climate, school awards and programs, measures of college and career readiness, and growth measurements that show how students, schools, and districts are improving over time.

The 5Essentials Survey focuses the five key measures that are ten times more likely to improve student learning if a school is strong in them. Those five areas are:

  • Effective leaders
  • Collaborative teachers
  • Involved families
  • Supportive environments
  • Ambitious instruction

The 5Essentials Survey is open to students in grades six through twelve, teachers, and parents, and the results are part of the Illinois School Report Card. One of the points raised in the webinar that came up again in the questions at the end was how can administrators and teachers reach out to families to get them to complete the 5Essentials Survey, since many schools struggle to meet the threshold level of participation from parents to see those results. ISBE’s answer, not surprisingly, goes back to family engagement. If schools are actively engaging their families and including them in decisions at the school, those families will be more likely to fill out the survey when asked because they then understand the importance of the results for the school.

Get the Recorded Webinar and More

The recorded Back-to-School webinar, along with the PowerPoint presentation that was used and answers to all of the questions submitted during the webinar (not just those answered during the webinar) will be available soon on the ISBE Hot Topics page.