Election 2023: What should Huntley 158′s school board do about test scores?

Some candidates pitch using new metrics to assess students

Candidates for Huntley School District 158's school board participate in two separate forums hosted by the Daily Herald Editorial Board in February 2023. They are (top row, left to right) Jonathan Dailey, Kate Policheri, Paula Yensen, (middle row) Andrew Bittman, Melissa M. Maiorino, Stephen Buchs, (bottom row) Kevin Gentry, Michael Thompson and Andrew Fekete.

Falling test scores, along with the overall educational climate within schools, are items school board candidates running for Huntley School District 158 said they hope to tackle if elected.

Despite general agreement on the need to address these issues, candidates differed on where they pinned the blame and how to solve them.

Nine of the 12 candidates running shared their thoughts as part of two forums hosted by the Daily Herald Editorial Board and attended by the Northwest Herald. The candidates discussed a variety of topics during the forum, including bullying and property taxes.

In attendance were incumbents Melissa Maiorino, Jonathan Dailey and Kevin Gentry, and challengers Kate Policheri, Stephen Buchs, Andrew Bittman, Paula Yensen, Michael Thompson and Andrew Fekete.

Incumbent William Geheren and challengers Laura Murray and Gina Galligar did not attend the interviews.

Nine of the candidates are competing for three four-year seats in the April 4 election while three – Fekete, Gentry and Thompson – are vying for one two-year seat.

Huntley District 158 exceeded state averages in math, science and language arts proficiency, as well as in its SAT and Illinois Assessment of Readiness scores, according to its Illinois Report Card data released this past fall.

Seven schools received “commendable” status, and one school, Heineman Middle School in Algonquin was targeted because of its English learners population scoring in the bottom 5% statewide, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

Commendable status means the schools did not rise to the top 10% statewide but also means they didn’t have any of their students populations fall into the bottom 5% statewide.

Buchs, who has worked in education, said the district needed to communicate better with the public about how test scores and other academic data have changed in order to better know what needs to be corrected.

The retention of district teachers needs to be a focus too, he said.

The district’s teacher retention rate is 89%, down from a high of 91% in 2020, according to state report card data.

Distracted learning, along with other issues like fighting and bullying, are taking away from academics, Maiorino said. The district needs to work to cut those things out and focus on “making kids excited about education.”

She said feedback from teachers and finding other ways to measure success were important too.

I think we need to stop finger-pointing and get back on track and help our students.

—  Kate Policheri

Several candidates, including Dailey, pinned some of the recent academic struggles on COVID-19, saying the priority needs to be on making up gaps. The district should also find new ways to assess success and not treat test scores as everything, Dailey said.

Dailey was one of a couple candidates who said that test scores have dropped but said the district has maintained its relative ranking as falling test scores have been a statewide issue.

Policheri also said the pandemic led to learning loss and mental health struggles, adding that it created division among parents, teachers and the board. She agreed that the district needed to find new ways to assess students, adding that “not all kids are test-takers.”

“I think we need to stop finger-pointing and get back on track and help our students,” she said.

Bittman noted that test scores have been dropping before COVID-19. He said his priority is to get the district focused on test scores and feels it is spreading itself too thin with other programs and objectives, which in turn is leading to teacher burnout.

He suggested looking at other more successful districts for ideas on how to improve academics in District 158.

Yensen, a former McHenry County Board member, said the district was not prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic and it showed the “fragility of the systems.” Like Maiorino, she wants to make learning exciting for children, and to do that, “we should think outside the box.”

Reviewing assessment tools and turning to teachers as a resource to identify solutions are things she said she thinks could help as well.

Like other candidates, Fekete said his goal would be to continue on the road to recovery following the pandemic. He said the district should use assessments and academic gaps to identify what needs to be addressed.

He also said he feels state tests are not the best indicator of success.

It’s important for us to go back to the basics. Implement core values in our teaching.

—  Michael Thompson

Gentry said that test scores are dropping across the area, and the district has maintained its ranking among the group. He said there is “much more to be done” in figuring out the causes and looking at the data.

“Other districts … are experiencing the same thing,” he said. “That’s not an excuse in any way … but the silver lining is we’ve held our ground.”

It’s not just test scores that Thompson was concerned about, but “the deterioration of schools,” saying they’ve lost focus on traditional values and academic performance because of special interests influencing the schools. He thinks these influences are interfering with “proven methods of teaching.”

“It’s important for us to go back to the basics,” he said. “Implement core values in our teaching.”