Illinois State Board of Education seeking public input on student testing

By Peter Hancock Capitol News Illinois

State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala

SPRINGFIELD — State education officials are seeking public input on potential significant changes to the annual reading and math tests students take each year.

The Illinois State Board of Education announced Nov. 21 it has launched an online survey to get feedback about how to make those tests “more useful, inclusive, equitable and balanced.”

“I began my tenure as state superintendent with a commitment to improving Illinois’ state assessments based on feedback from the field,” State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said in a news release. “As a former teacher and district administrator, I know the importance of high-quality assessments that help us understand students’ mastery of the learning standards and tailor instruction to meet students’ needs.”

Annual reading and math tests in every classroom became mandatory nationwide in 2002 with passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That was an initiative of the George W. Bush administration that required schools to make “adequate yearly progress” in improving students’ basic skills, with the goal of bringing all students up to a level of proficiency within 12 years.

Testing changed dramatically in 2010 when states banded together to develop the Common Core Standards, a uniform set of educational standards that were geared toward making all students ready for college or the workplace by the time they graduated high school. Those standards were eventually adopted by 41 states, including Illinois.

From 2015 until the 2018-2019 school year, Illinois administered tests for students in grades 3 through 8 that were designed around the Common Core Standards. Those tests were developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and thus became known as the PARCC assessments.

Last year, the state switched to its own version of the PARCC tests, the Illinois Assessment of Readiness. ISBE spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said that exam covers the same content and uses the same questions as the PARCC tests but is about one-third shorter.

High school students currently take a version of the PSAT exam or, for 11th-grade students, the SAT exam.

Matthews said ISBE is considering at least three major changes to the way it administers those tests, and is seeking public input about which changes should be given highest priority.

One of those is to develop a “computer adaptive” test in which each successive question might change depending on how the student performed on previous questions. Under that system, questions might get progressively difficult for students who do well on the first few questions, or they might get easier for students who perform poorly at first. That could help teachers better identify exactly where the student is academically.

Another possible change, Matthews said, is to administer “native language” tests for students with limited English proficiency. She said that could be especially important in math exams, which are currently administered in English, making it difficult to tell if the test is measuring a student’s math skills or English skills.

Finally, she said, officials are considering developing “interim” tests that could be given at different points throughout the year to track how well students are progressing toward meeting state standards for their grade level. Many districts develop and administer those on their own, Matthews said, but the survey will measure interest in having the state develop standardized interim tests that are written around the state’s educational standards.

ISBE will use the survey results when it begins the process of developing new tests in December. That’s when agency staff will present a “Request for Sealed Proposals” from test developers that will be guided by the survey results. The state board is expected to take action on those proposals in January.

Meanwhile, the agency said tests given this coming spring will remain the same. Whatever new tests the state adopts will go into effect in 2021.