The superintendents for school districts in Brookfield, North Riverside and Riverside have begun meeting in order to plan for a complete overhaul in the state’s standardized testing program, which is to be in place three years from now.
Beginning in the 2014-15 school year, Illinois will join 45 other states, along with Washington, D.C., and U.S. Virgin Islands, in testing students using Common Core Standards being developed by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Standards for reading and math have already been developed. The next subject area to be tackled is science, with social studies still on the horizon.
While the national effort has received little attention so far, it will be a titanic shift in the way students are currently tested, and local school administrators are joining forces to decide how to best prepare for the change.
“We have met every other month and agreed we need to stay ahead of the curve,” said Riverside-Brookfield High School Superintendent Kevin Skinkis.
In April, representatives from all of the districts that feed in to RBHS will begin to work on understanding the new standards for math and how to approach instruction so that all of the districts are on the same page.
“I’m hoping this will evolve into greater articulation [between the districts],” said Mark Kuzniewski, superintendent of Brookfield-LaGrange Park Elementary School District 95, “and serve as a springboard to get to a point where we can be sharing common institute days and share information on best practices.”
School administrators are also hoping the adoption of the Common Core Standards will raise the bar for student achievement across the board.
According to the Illinois State Board of Education, “the goal is to better prepare Illinois students for success in college and the workforce in a competitive global economy.”
Instead of discrete groups of students having to hit an arbitrary benchmark in order for a school to achieve “adequate yearly progress,” the Common Core Standards assessments will be used to track individual student progress and give schools immediate information to guide instruction.
In that respect, the implementation of the Common Core Standards will be similar to MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) testing that some districts, such as Districts 95 and 96, have already implemented.
Instead of having students take one test midyear and then wait weeks or months for the results, the new assessment will theoretically give schools feedback on student achievement and progress more quickly.
“It makes a lot more sense than testing different groups of students and comparing them,” said Neil Pellicci, superintendent of Komarek School District 94 in North Riverside.
For the past decade students in Illinois elementary and high schools have buckled down every March and April to take the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) or the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE), respectively.
The tests were part of a nationwide testing reform program called No Child Left Behind, and how well students did on those tests (only juniors are tested in high school) determined whether or not their school was failing to meet certain state-mandated and ever-more-stringent benchmarks.
By 2014, 100 percent of all students in every school in the U.S. were to have met standards set by their states. By 2011, in Illinois, almost every public high school and 80 percent of grade school districts were considered “failing.”
The move to the Common Core Standards was a response to the frustration school districts felt with NCLB. While the idea of bringing up achievement across the board was an appealing part of NCLB, its arbitrary implementation guaranteed failure.
“I don’t know that anyone can argue with some of the positive aspects that came out of NCLB,” said Kuzniewski. “It did drive more attention to instruction. The problem was the process and procedures and unrealistic expectations and mandates for not hitting certain benchmarks.”
NCLB also allowed states to set their own standards of achievement and, as a result, some states’ expectations were higher than others.
“It will be a benefit to states who set their standards too low,” Kuzniewski said. “The benefit is there will be a national set of standards every kid is working for and get to meet to compete globally.”
But there are clearly some hurdles to clear before the Common Core assessment can be implemented in 2014-15. For example, the actual tests have not yet been developed.
“The challenge for schools is we have a set of defined standards for reading and math, and we know that the amount of standards exceeds what we could realistically teach in one year,” said Kuzniewski. “We don’t feel we could effectively teach all of the standards in one year.
“We’re going to be asked to align our curriculum to a set of standards, but we don’t know what the assessment will be until the kids actually do it.”
In addition, according to information provided by the Illinois State Board of Education, the tests will be computer-based – not the pencil-and-paper exams of old. Further, the state board says that the plan is to test students four times a year – early in the year, mid-year, with 90 percent of the year completed and as close to the end of the school year as possible.
That will be trouble enough for school districts like those in Riverside, Brookfield and Riverside, which have access to technology resources. But in some urban and downstate districts, that’s going to pose a problem.
“Funding is a huge issue,” said Pellicci. “The state is going to have to find the funding to do this if the state wants to do four tests over the year.”
Kuzniewski said he also fears that the logistical requirements will get in the way of actually teaching students.
“For me that’s the biggest problem,” he said.