Illinois’ Attempt to Change School Testing is Pushed Back, for Now
School is nearing an end for the summer across the state, but conversations on standardized testing are continuing to heat up. As the focus on pandemic mitigations and protocols diminishes, the Illinois State Board of Education, school administrators, parent advocates, and legislators are increasingly looking to the issues surrounding standardized testing.
This past spring, lawmakers in Springfield secured a big win for those against standardized testing with the passage of the “Too Young to Test” (SB3986) bill. And, this fall, debate will likely heat up regarding testing in other grades; specifically, focusing on the Illinois Assessment of Readiness (IAR), which is administered yearly to students in grades 3-8.
The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) tasked the State Assessment Review Committee (SARC) with analyzing the results of a statewide survey about educational assessments, which included considering the value of the annual IAR test and its ability to better gauge learning gaps. There were indications the committee could ultimately recommend replacing the single, high-stakes IAR standardized test with a program of interim testing throughout the school year, but this idea faced a barrage of criticism from many.
According to ISBE spokesperson Jaclyn Matthews, “after the agency conducted this extensive stakeholder feedback,” it has decided not to make any changes to the IAR assessment. Matthews continued, “We will keep the Illinois Assessment of Readiness as is: a single, summative assessment at the end of the year for accountability purposes.”
Dan Montgomery, President of the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) posted a statement after ISBE announced it would not make any changes at this time, writing, “We will continue to demand that Illinois adopt assessments that are more balanced, more relevant, and more equitable – NOT just more frequent.”
This current crossroads could be an opportunity for stakeholders to contemplate a more meaningful testing system in the state that starts by addressing the long-standing issues with the current standardized IAR test, the only state-required assessment for most students in grades 3-8.
Issues with IAR
Most stakeholders agree that the IAR test is not very effective or meaningful, but what to do with it is up for wide debate. While some believe the test can be improved upon, others think it, and tests like it, should be administered less frequently or abandoned completely. Getting rid of standardized testing completely might be difficult because any changes to the already approved test would need approval by the federal U.S. Department of Education.
That’s because the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” (ESSA), passed in 2015 to replace the “No Child Left Behind Act,” outlines the federal laws governing K-12 education in the U.S. ESSA requires every state to develop a “State Report Card,” that is accessible online and provides parents test performance information in reading, math and science. The report cards must also provide data on graduation rates, suspensions, absenteeism, teacher qualifications, and many other areas. It was meant to increase transparency from the previous federal law and also to allow states greater flexibility in developing their own assessment. In Illinois, the assessment tool for third-to-eighth graders is the IAR test.
Illinois Education Association (IEA) President Kathi Griffin stressed that most testing occurs at the district level and says that the feedback she is getting from the teachers about the IAR has not been very positive. “Our members have told us that instructional time is significantly reduced when it is taken by testing, (and) the data from the (IAR) tests is provided after students have already advanced to the next grade level.”
Griffin, who encourages districts to work with their union to review mandated testing to make “common-sense changes” so that testing is “psychometrically sound and equitable,” says most teachers point out drawbacks to the IAR test. A Rockford Public School #205 math teacher who agrees there are drawbacks to the IAR test said, “I take three half days in a week to test the students and I also have to test prep for it before then.” She explained that the test doesn’t show results beyond the standards (unlike other tests with no ceiling) and they aren’t available until after the students have moved out of her classroom and into the next grade. Unlike other testing options, she cannot, in real time, identify and remediate the issues the student may be having, which is very frustrating. The limitations with the lack of insight and the premium on in-person classroom time are two main reasons to reform this exam.
Union leader Griffin thinks Illinois is going in the right direction in reviewing their current testing strategy, stating, “Our members have consistently expressed dissatisfaction with the current system.”
Legislators Tune-In to Testing Concerns
On May 13, Governor Pritzker signed the “Too Young To Test” bill, prohibiting the state from developing, requiring, or purchasing assessments for students in grades kindergarten through 2nd grade. The law doesn’t apply in the case of diagnostic tests, including determining eligibility for special education services, bilingual services, dyslexia interventions, and observational tools like the federally mandated English Learner assessments and the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey. For young learners, the idea of removing testing seems like a commonsense step. But, for those who are in favor of getting rid of as much testing as possible, it was seen more as a critical first step – with the hope it can pave the way for removal of other assessments in the K-12 ecosystem.
“Child development is so fluid, and so administering standardized tests to children this age is not developmentally appropriate,” said Illinois Senator Cristina Pacione-Zayas (D-Chicago), who championed the “Too Young to Test” legislation and points to brain studies on children to back up this point.
In addition, the senator believes there is just too much money involved in the current standardized testing systems, which reward those who create the tests, those who develop curriculums based on the tests, and those who offer training, to name a few of the interests invested in keeping the current structure in place.
“We need to look towards meaningful assessments,” Pacione-Zayas said. “For younger kids, that includes play-based assessments and for others, competency-based systems where students demonstrate competency rather than take one big, end-of-year multiple choice test.”
Sen. Pacione-Zayas would rather see portfolios, creative projects, and district level assessments than the current standardized testing, which she claims perpetuates the “white, middle-class status quo,” and does little to bridge gaps in equity across the state. And Pacione-Zayas rejects the value many put on accountability saying, “We don’t want to swap out one tool for another that just measures the students’ ability to take information and regurgitate it,” concluding that high-stakes testing promotes fear, and punishes kids, teachers, and parents.
Another member of the senate education committee, senator Sue Rezin (R-Morris), who supported the “Too Young To Test” measure, did so because she hasn’t seen convincing data or evidence to suggest standardized tests are the best method for Pre-K through second grade students. “I believe the risks of forcing standardized tests on children so young may outweigh the potential rewards,” the senator wrote in a statement.
Still, Sen. Rezin still values the accountability component of standardized testing. “With that being said, it is important to have assessment methods in place to gauge the progress of our students.”
And advocacy groups are weighing in on the debate as well. Cassie Creswell, director of the Illinois Families for Public Schools (IFPS) is pleased ISBE will continue to gather input before implementing changes and she hopes they might listen to those who want the agency to move away from high-stakes tests, which cause stress, fuel fear, and are not an accurate measure of learning.
Cresswell, who believes that time spent testing means time not spent teaching and learning, points to a letter that 37 Illinois state legislators signed in December 2021 asking ISBE for more due diligence before voting on a new state testing system. Like Sen. Pacione-Zayas, Cresswell believes that overuse and misuse of standardized testing harms children and schools and distorts teaching and learning in the classroom. The IFPS advocates for replacing high stakes testing with authentic assessment and believes accountability should be minimally intrusive on local education practice.
In the spring of 2020, the states were able to get a COVID waiver to skip the ESSA assessments, but they were mandated again the following year. Still, that pause provided those in Illinois a moment to reflect on how the state administers assessments, how meaningful the results are, and what they do with the information they get from them. The renewed emphasis on creating greater equity amongst students of all socioeconomic backgrounds also cast state assessments under the microscope and are fueling the debate.
There is an expectation that changes to state-wide assessments could come after November’s general election. Regardless of who is elected governor, ISBE could face an influx of newly appointed board members, at the same time the statehouse may welcome a spate of new legislators. All the while, the conversations between the stakeholders will continue to illuminate the many considerations in this complicated and important issue. For the state agency playing a central role in all this, Matthews maintains that “ISBE’s goal is to make those required assessments more useful to educators and families.” And because any changes to standardized testing will directly affect Illinois children, there will be a lot of attention on just what the next steps will be.
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