River Forest’s Willard Elementary rises to Exemplary status after ISBE lowers standards
Both Lincoln and Willard Elementary Schools in River Forest District 90 enjoyed the Illinois State Board of Education’s highest rank, Exemplary, until they didn’t in 2019.
In 2016 the district 90 school board, then led by Ralph Martire, voted unanimously for reforms that elevated social and emotional programs above curriculum and instruction, and were supposed to “narrow the achievement gap”, according to Martire. The gap has widened since these reforms, and River Forest isn’t alone.
In an attempt to buoy a sinking Illinois school system, ISBE created new performance standards in 2022 that, among other things, replace proficiency in science with participation, create storytelling opportunities, and “set new targets by grade span (i.e., 3-4, 5-6, 7-8, 11) for all students enrolled in any grade during or before SY 2020-21”. The move by ISBE to lower standards is the state equivalent of district grade inflation, an opportunity to hide a horrible trend from people too busy to look deeper than an one-word "summative designation".
By 2019, just three years after an “equity” policy, the proportion of Willard Elementary third graders unable to “meet expectations” in reading had nearly tripled and schools like Willard were ready to benefit from lower ISBE standards.
Using academic achievement of Willard third graders, 31% and 34% failed to meet expectations in English language arts and math in 2019. These numbers capture declines following 2016 policy changes, and 2019 is the year both Elementary schools fell from Exemplary to Commendable. Achievement declined further by 2021 with “equity” and covid-related policies.
The 2022 Exemplary designation for Willard comes despite abysmal academic results. In 2022, approximately 35% of Willard Elementary third graders do not meet expectations in reading or math. This is an improvement over 2021 lows, but still worse than the years 2015 – 2018 when the school enjoyed an Exemplary ISBE rating.
Lincoln Elementary achievement in math is still suffering under poor curriculum choices and uncertain instructional practices; however, third grader achievement in English language arts returned to pre-pandemic levels. One can wonder about how the relative importance of storytelling with the new ISBE standards.
Some residents say not getting caught up in state and national education groupthink, being slower than other districts to adopt Common Core Standards, and keeping politics out of the small school system, is part of what had made River Forest attractive to new families. Time will how much families like the new direction of River Forest schools.