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Some Illinois educators say they’ve been left out of plans to revamp state’s testing system

Several students sit at a gray table to take an exam using bright, yellow pencils. The classroom background is white.
Illinois school leaders and education advocates raise concerns about lack of transparency around the state’s plan to overhaul the current state assessment.
Kali9 / Getty Images

A plan to change Illinois’ state assessment came under fire Tuesday by school leaders, testing experts, educators, and students who told state legislators that the process has not been transparent.

Illinois will spend about $42 million this school year on multiple tests to assess proficiency in reading, math, and science — and for some students, English language proficiency — but under scrutiny is the roughly $20 million it spends each year on the Illinois Assessment of Readiness. The state superintendent is now pushing for a different test that would be administered three times a year and would include an optional kindergarten to second grade test.

The COVID-19 pandemic has trained a spotlight on assessments and what data is available to states and school districts to assess learning loss.

State Superintendent Carmen Ayala said Tuesday at a subject matter hearing convened by an Illinois House committee that her goal is to shorten the time that students take the exam with no more than 50 minutes in math and English language arts. Ayala also called the need to change the state assessment an equity issue because not all school districts have money to spend on their own assessments.

“Many of our school districts use local dollars on these types of end-of-year assessments, but other districts cannot afford them,” said Ayala. “That is an equity issue. Making them available from the state level would save district funding and would increase access.”

The board said in September that it has heard from stakeholders who say that they want an exam relevant to their curriculum and instruction that gives data to schools in a timely manner and provides quality tests for all school districts.

But some critics of the effort have said it doesn’t make financial sense for the state to enter into a contract with a new testing vendor while it has an existing contract through 2025; that the process hasn’t been transparent; and that upping the frequency of testing would burden educators and school leaders.

Paula Barajas, a special education teacher for years in Chicago Public Schools and a member of the state’s Assessment Review Committee (SARC), a group responsible for reviewing the content and design of assessments, said the committee has not received any information from Ayala regarding plans to change the current assessment system.

“The reconstituted SARC has not been a functional committee, in my opinion,” said Barajas. “I believe I can say that because I’ve served on other ISBE committees.”

The state board said during September’s board meeting that the group would conduct eight stakeholder feedback sessions from September to November, but advocates pointed out Tuesday that the state has not yet held any such discussions.

Educators have complained that the current IAR, which districts give in spring, does not produce data fast enough and that schools don’t receive results back until students have passed to the next grade. As a result, a majority of school districts use an interim test to examine students three times a year to track their academic progress.

Kyle Thompson, superintendent of Regional Office of Education #11 in the southeastern part of the state, said that the test is ineffective, burns out educators and students, and doesn’t provide useful data.

Thompson called for less testing and said the state should give “tests that you can get instant feedback on” so schools can move more quickly to meet student needs.

Chicago was one of those districts that relied heavily on interim assessments until this summer when it ended its contract with nonprofit NWEA, which provides the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test. Schools now can opt into two new assessments: a part of the universal Skyline Curriculum the district rolled out last July — which is currently optional — and a collection of quick Star 360 assessments available in both English and Spanish.

This shift means that for Chicago, the state assessment will remain the only test that all elementary and high school campuses will consistently administer — and thus the only one offering a more panoramic picture of how district students are faring academically compared to their peers elsewhere in the state.

District educators and board members have said that Chicago had come to lean too heavily on the MAP to measure student growth and guide instruction, but also to evaluate teachers and principals and to rate schools. In 2019, the district’s inspector general investigated concerns over irregularities in how some schools administered the MAP, such as giving students indefinite time to finish the tests.

Paul Zavitkovsky, assessment specialist at the Center for Urban Education Leadership at UIC, used MAP as a warning to state education leaders. Before 2013-2019, Chicago saw growth between third through eighth grade. When the district switched to MAP, that growth disappeared.

As the state board is considering other assessment systems, Zavitkovsky says that they should be asking, “What do districts want? Why can’t the state do all the things that the district wants? And what sorts of assessments can only be done locally by classroom teachers?”

Some educators and experts also said the MAP is not tied closely enough to district curriculums and, to some extent, state learning standards. That made it only so useful in helping educators tailor instruction to students’ needs.

Mila Koumpilova and Cassie Walker Burke contributed to this report.

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