Common Core tests a new starting point for Illinois schools

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Robin Steans, executive director, Advance Illinois

Courtesy, Advance Illinois

Robin Steans, executive director, Advance Illinois

The Illinois State Board of Education recently signaled its intent to move toward a new generation of assessments – a move most educators would agree has been needed for years.  

This is a new starting point.

Four years ago, the state adopted the Common Core State Standards. Illinois now must put in place a state assessment system that better serves students by capturing whether they are developing the knowledge and skills they will need in an ever-changing world. This is an opportunity to replace current state tests with dramatically better assessments that work for students and educators. 

Illinois has played an active leadership role in a consortium of states working to develop new assessments called PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

Initial analysis suggests questions on the new assessments will measure higher-order thinking through performance tasks and open-ended prompts that delve deeper than fill-in-the-bubble tests. By comparison, current state assessments often don’t measure higher-order thinking. On average, 0 percent of U.S. students are assessed on deeper learning and conceptual understanding in math and 16 percent of U.S. students are assessed on deeper learning in reading, according to an analysis of current state tests – skills that students, families, educators and employers agree are critical to success in the world.

The Illinois State Board of Education last week requested $54.5 million to support assessments in the coming year. The state has an opportunity to invest in the best effort we’ve seen in generations to move beyond rote, fill-in-the-blank tests that are easy to score, relatively cheap and virtually unable to capture students’ ability to handle complexity or synthesize information from multiple sources. By contrast, proposed new assessments have been designed to give teachers, school leaders, students and families significantly richer information. The caliber of sample questions have been encouraging and independent analysis has been strong. However, the work is ongoing, and we all should watch closely to see the ultimate quality of the endeavor.  If they live up to their promise, it marks a huge step forward and a worthwhile investment for our state.

At Advance Illinois, we spent more than a year speaking with educators statewide and visiting classrooms to observe the shift to new standards and assessments. Their insights deepened our own thinking and informed the report and video series we released earlier this month, titled Making Assessments Work. They also make clear that we all must be vigilant to ensure students, educators and schools have the resources needed – time, training and technology – to achieve these higher expectations. 

Key decisions will need to be made

Such a sea change raises several questions that Illinois will need to consider in the coming months. Some of these decisions include:

Should Illinois continue to administer the ACT and WorkKeys to all high school juniors if and when the state moves to a Common Core-aligned assessment system that spans grades 3 through 11? This is top of mind for Illinois high school educators. For more than a decade, Illinois has provided a universal college entrance exam, removing one of the traditional hurdles to higher education for many students. While PARCC may be used by 2- and 4-year institutions for placement purposes – enabling students who score well to matriculate directly into credit-bearing courses – it is too soon to know if and when it may be used as part of the college application process. Also of concern is the continuation of the Work Keys, a nationally-recognized career readiness indicator that Illinois has administered alongside the ACT. The value of an industry-recognized certification is clear, so here again it will be important to understand whether PARCC can or cannot provide similar value and then make decisions carefully. 

 Will Illinois invest in diagnostic assessments to inform instruction during the course of the year? On their own dime, many Illinois school districts currently administer mid-year assessments that provide an early window into teaching and learning, and enable teachers to tailor instruction to meet needs. The suite of new Common Core assessments includes diagnostics that aim to provide similar information early on. Done well, this could be an opportunity for the state to provide such assessment tools to school districts that cannot currently afford them. In a state plagued by funding disparities between school districts, such an investment in academic equity is significant.   

How will the state support school districts with the time, technology and training needed for the new standards and assessments? The new Common Core assessments are designed to be taken online, which means students and educators can get results within days, not months, and in a way that informs instruction. However, not all Illinois schools have the 21st Century technology to support this. While PARCC may be administered with paper and pencil, there is an increased cost that is estimated at $3 to $4 a student. ISBE’s budget request presumes half of Illinois’ 2 million public school students will take the new assessments with paper and pencil next year, thus contributing to the increased line item. 

Input from the field needed

The Illinois P-20 Council, in partnership with ISBE, plans to convene 18 focus groups of teachers, administrators, business leaders and others to gather input. This will inform the final decisions that will shape the next generation of assessments for Illinois students. 

Other issues will require a broader, national conversation given the overarching concerns about how the new assessments will meet the needs of students with special learning needs and students who are new to the English language, or whether a nationally-recognized indicator of career readiness is built into the new assessments.

No one enjoys spending money on assessments. But assessments matter. As one Chicago principal told us, quality assessments give a sense of “what our kids are capable of doing and what they have actually learned while they’ve been in our presence.”

Last month’s budget request is part of the ongoing investment Illinois must make to support teachers and schools with the resources needed to help all students access the Common Core. Now more than ever, all means all.

 I’m anxious to hear what teachers, principals and others in the field have to say.  I know our current assessments do not capture students’ deeper learning or help inform instruction. Getting that right is a worthwhile investment.    

Robin Steans is executive director of Advance Illinois.

Making Assessments Work

Read about Illinois’ shift to new standards and assessments in a new Advance Illinois report called Making Assessments Work.

Watch the Making Assessments Work Video Series: