Last week, I heard an interview with Lake Forest District 115 & 67 superintendent Dr. Matthew Montgomery and District 115 board president John Noble on Lake Forest on Topic, a Lake Forest for Transparency program

During the podcast, both men defended the disappointing 2023 Illinois Report Card proficiency rates earned by Lake Forest High School (LFHS) students. Mr. Noble downplayed school-to-school score comparisons, highlighting instead successful academic “growth” over the course of a student’s career at District 67 & 115, and Dr. Montgomery, likewise, emphasized a “constant state of improvement” among students.

Dr. Montgomery went on to elicit his favorite talking point that, though 35% of students languish below proficiency in Math and Reading, LFHS ranks among the top 10% of Illinois high schools.

Community Op-Ed:

He lamented criticism by some parents that LFHS did not perform as well as Adlai E Stevenson High School (District 125) in the recent US News and World Report rankings, noting that the 81-place difference is immaterial considering the over 25,000 high schools evaluated and District 125’s greater emphasis on SAT preparedness. Dr. Montgomery, finally, wrestled the conversation away from standardized testing, which he “hates,” to his “Portrait of a Learner” initiative, which he and Mr. Noble gushed over for the remainder of an hour.

However, are benchmarks based on standardized tests really unrepresentative? Are Lake Forest students really growing throughout their scholastic careers? And should objective measures of success really be replaced with subjective, albeit beautifully marketed, milestones like Portrait of a Learner? 

The Portrait of a Learner webpage features high-minded learning goals like “Empathy,” “Citizenship,” and “Confidence” that give way to ironically ambiguous bullet points like “Work effectively in an environment of ambiguity and changing priorities.” This pseudo-profundity is followed by a glossy but hollow marketing video, an inspirational word collage with cartoon roads that, tellingly, lead nowhere, and an explanation of the 2022 timeline for its creation. Well-intentioned, though it may be, this frivolous triviality would be unworthy of mention were it not the focus of so much time on the podcast.

Perhaps its popularity among administrators stems from the utter inability to quantify it.

Conversely, despite shortcomings, standardized tests are ascertainable measures with which to assess current performance against both past achievement and peer institutions. With that said, let’s look at the data.

This essay relies upon the state-mandated Illinois Assessment of Readiness (IAR) test administered annually to third through eighth-grade students and the Practice Scholastic Assessment Test (PSAT), on which Illinois assesses 11th-grade student proficiency in Math and English Language Arts (ELA).

I also reference pre-2019 data from the retired state test, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Results are publicly available at

For simplicity and brevity, I focus only on 4th, 8th, and 11th-grade tests from 2015, 2017, 2019, 2022 and 2023. According to that website, “The use of the term proficiency in educational data generally refers to students demonstrating or not demonstrating that they are “well advanced in … a branch of knowledge” (from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary).” The term is generally accepted as the baseline acquired grade-level math and reading skills needed to advance.

Are Lake Forest students “growing” or experiencing a “constant state of improvement”?

Focusing exclusively on keystone 4th and 8th-grade PARCC/IAR proficiency rates, the results are discouraging. Proficiency scores during the 2015, 2017, 2019, 2022, and 2023 school years for 4th and 8th graders dropped in all but one year, 2017, with an average learning loss of 13%.

Measuring growth among the same class four years later, from 2015 4th graders to 2019 8th graders and 2019 4th graders to 2023 8th graders, the learning loss was 17% and 24%, respectively.

Although all scores recovered between 2022 and 2023, no score meets or exceeds its 2017 peak.

Eighth-grade ELA scores in 2023 were a whopping 30% lower than those of the class of 2017.

Evidently, “Growth” is not present between grades in the same year, among the same students over time, or between classes over time.  

High school students are assessed with an 11th-grade PSAT as opposed to the IAR used to assess grades three through eight, making comparisons between 8th and 11th-grade scores elusive. Noteworthy, however, is the profound post-pandemic learning loss at LFHS in ELA (21%) and Math (17%) between 2019 and 2023. Compare that with District 125, Dr. Montgomery’s cogent example, which experienced a learning loss in ELA and Math of only 3% and 4.5%, respectively. LFHS’s scores exceeded D125 in both ELA and Math in 2019; now, in 2023, proficiency rates at LFHS are roughly 10% lower than D125 in both subjects. 

Are differences in PSAT proficiency rates simply a matter of test preparation methodology, as Dr. Montgomery postulated? The numbers tell a more complicated story. As it turns out, Lake Forest proficiency rates begin flagging years before students embark on their junior year. The weighted average scores at D125 feeder schools (D76, D79, D96, D102 & D103) consistently outperformed the lfhs feeder schools (D65 & D67) in ELA and Math in 2019, 2022 and 2023. In fact, despite its shrinking lead on Math proficiency from 2.28% in 2019 to 0.73% in 2023, Lake Forest’s average learning deficit during those years was 2.5 points or 4% below Lincolnshire’s scores.

A broader review of North Shore elementary school performance affirms the above findings. When compared with 2023 test results from 17 neighboring districts (Bannockburn, Northfield, Wilmette, Northbrook, Libertyville, Lincolnshire, Kenilworth, Winnetka, Roundout, Glencoe, Deerfield, Lake Bluff, Buffalo Grove, Glenview, Highland Park, and Vernon Hills), Lake Forest District 67 ranked 15th on ELA and 11th on Math. Worse, Lake Forest’s rankings have declined since 2017, when District 67 was ranked 11th and 9th in ELA and Math.

All school-to-school comparisons indicate that increasing numbers of students enter LFHS less academically prepared than peers at neighboring districts and, therefore, less equipped to take the PSAT three years later.

What about Lake Forest’s esteemed ranking among Illinois test takers? Despite Dr. Montgomery’s endorsement of statewide comparisons, Illinois average proficiency scores are the wrong metric for Lake Forest students. The above-referenced north shore communities are the appropriate academic benchmark for Lake Forest District 115 and 67; not Chicago, not Aurora, not Joliet and not the many rural districts across Illinois. Those communities, which comprise the bulk of Illinois’ population, do not belong to the same socio-economic class and do not compete for the same taxpayer base. Arguments to the contrary are misleading and insincere. Compared with its peers, Lake Forest is failing to provide the same level of scholastic achievement, and the trend is headed in the wrong direction. 

So, you say, what is the solution, Erik? I don’t know.

What I do know is talk of “Portrait of a Learner” and other marketing initiatives is a distraction from the inconvenient truths hidden in the Illinois Report Card numbers and a costly indulgence by administrators and board members. The sooner District 115 & 67 leadership admits that there is a problem with education in Lake Forest and residents engage in an honest conversation about how to fix it, the sooner we can begin our journey back to academic excellence.