An Oct. 31 report prepared by researchers affiliated with the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) at the University of Chicago raised questions concerning the Illinois learning standards and the efficacy of the Illinois Standard Achievement Tests (ISATs). “[T]he evidence we have here suggests that the eighth-grade standards are not well aligned with the work that students will need to be able to do in order to succeed in college,” states the report.

Meeting ISATs Is Not Enough

Reviewing scores of 42,456 students in the Chicago Public Schools over a three-year period, the report concludes that eighth-graders who just “meet” state standards on the ISATs in eighth-grade “have virtually no chance of getting to 20 on the ACT,” and that “most students who meet the state standards on the eighth grade ISAT have little chance of reaching 20 on the ACT.” Students who barely make their way into the “Exceeds” category on the eighth-grade ISATs have a 62 percent chance of reaching 20 on the ACT.

The technical manual for the ACT says the benchmark score for college readiness is 21.5. The report says a composite ACT score of 20 would give a high school graduate “some moderate chance” of being accepted into Southern Illinois University, Northern Illinois University and University of Illinois at Chicago, where an ACT score of 20 ranked at about the 25th percentile rank for the college class of 2005.

“Meeting state standards [on the ISATs], at least relative to the more rigorous and demanding ACT, is insufficient,” says the report. “It takes a score well into the Exceeds category on the eighth-grade ISAT to have a relatively good shot at achieving well on the ACT in eleventh grade.

“[M]ost students who meet the state standards on the eighth grade ISAT have little chance of reaching 20 on the ACT.” — CCSR Report

“This suggests major misalignment between our expectations for what students should know and be able to do at the end of elementary school and whether or not they are on track for college readiness.

“Perhaps we are sending students and schools the wrong message about the adequacy of elementary student academic preparation, especially for the vast majority of students who have their eyes on college in the future. Students, their parents and their schools are being told that they meet state standards for eighth-grade achievement; yet they have virtually no chance of reaching a score of 20 on the ACT, which we note is an admittedly low bar,” the report concludes.

While concluding that ISAT standards are misaligned with the ACT results, the report emphasizes that future performance is not determined by prior scores. The report says that the quality of a high school, as measured by its academic culture, and the quality of work that students do in high school are two major factors that determine how well a student will do on the ACTs. “These two factors have significant influence on the amount of improvement students make over time from one test score to another.”

The report adds, though, “The strongest academic cultures and the best grades aren’t going to be sufficient for these students who simply do not have the academic preparation to engage in the rigorous instruction they need to be prepared for college. Having such low academic standards in eighth grade serves no one well, least of all the students who eke through and then are surprised to find themselves unprepared to do well in high school, let alone college.”

Dr. John Easton, a co-author of the report and executive director of CCSR, told the RoundTable, “If we want kids to do demanding problem-solving in the 11th grade, we have to backtrack to determine what we have to do in earlier years to get them there.” He added that the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) should also be more transparent about the testing system. As an example he said ISBE should have explained why it rescored the ISATs this year.

ISBE Is Reviewing Standards

Matt Vanover, spokesperson for ISBE, told the RoundTable that ISBE’s staff had not yet had an opportunity to examine the CCSR report, but added, “We have heard from the field for a number of years about the misalignment between standards at the elementary schools and the high schools.”

He said that in response to those comments ISBE decided to participate with the American Diploma Project Network, a coalition of 33 states managed by Achieve, Inc., to review its high school learning standards, which were adopted in 1997, and compare them against national and international standards. As part of this project, Mr. Vanover said ISBE will backtrack and review all the standards back to kindergarten. He said the process is underway and may take 18 to 24 months.

Earlier this year, at the request of ISBE, Achieve reviewed Illinois’ learning standards in English and math at grades 8 through 12. Achieve concluded, “[T]here are key gaps in areas that our research shows are essential for student success in college and the world of work.” Achieve recommended that ISBE review its pre-k-12 standards and align those standards with its state assessments (the ISATs and the Prairie State Achievement Exam, one part of which is an ACT exam).

In his weekly message dated June 14, State Superintendent Christopher A. Koch said, “The review of our high school standards is the first step in the process that will lead to a review and alignment of our K-12 standards to post-secondary and career expectations.”

Mr. Eaton told the RoundTable that ISBE’s review of its learning standards in conjunction with the American Diploma Project Network “is a step in the right direction.”

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...