Former Governor Jim Edgar, Advance Illinois Executive Director Robin Steans, and former Secretary of Commerce William Daley call for reform of the state's educational system

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Advance Illinois, an education reform group co-chaired by former Governor Jim Edgar and former Secretary of Commerce William Daley, called for radical reform of the state’s education system at a press conference on June 18.


Its report, We Can Do Better: Advancing Public Education in Illinois, calls for setting world-class standards, holding school districts and teacher training programs accountable for results, linking teacher and principal evaluations to academic outcomes, and empowering local schools and districts to stimulate innovation.


The report provides a stark assessment of the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) which it says is based on “flawed standards and low expectations.”


“Nationally respected organizations across the political spectrum have given Illinois mediocre and failing grades for the quality of our academic standards in core subject areas,” says the report.


“While student scores on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) show a rising trend, that success has not extended to more rigorous national tests, which place Illinois eighth graders in the bottom half of the nation in both reading and math, and show that fewer than one-third of fourth and eighth graders demonstrate ‘proficiency’ in math and science.”


The report cites data from a study, The Proficiency Illusion, showing that in 2007 about 81% of Illinois eighth graders were ranked proficient in reading and math on the ISATs, but only about 30% of the eighth graders were ranked proficient on another test, the NAEP.


“We’ve been pretending that kids who score ‘proficient’ on state tests are doing just fine,” says the report. However, “Students who do well on the ISAT more often than not find they are unprepared for college-level courses and for a workplace that requires higher skill levels than ever before.”


“We are failing our students and their families who believe making the grade in Illinois means you are ready to take on college or the workplace,” said former Gov. Edgar at a press conference. “Sadly, that’s often the case because our standards in Illinois are so low.”


To address this problem, the report recommends that the State adopt internationally benchmarked college- and career-ready standards and raise graduation requirements to match college and career requirements.


Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, said Illinois “has begun to work on standards in a very healthy way” by joining the American Diploma Network in 2008 and working with 46 other states to develop a common core of academic standards aligned to college and career readiness.


Once this is done, Illinois should align assessments to the new standards. “This means reworking the ISAT in grades three through eight, emphasizing more rigorous an relevant content, as well as setting ‘cut scores’ that are more consistent with other states and with national test,” says the report. “Elementary and middle school tests should align with the high school standards and tests so that scoring proficient in eighth grade means students are on track to be college and career ready in high school.”


At the high school level, Advance Illinois recommends that the State strengthen the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE), and end-of-course exams for core subjects should be developed


In light of the findings that the ISATs are flawed and based on low expectations and in anticipation that it will take some time for the State to adopt new standards, Ms. Steans was asked if school districts should use other tests or assessments, such as the EXPLORE and MAP tests, to determine whether they are preparing students for high school. “Absolutely, it makes sense for school districts to do that,” she said.


Advance Illinois’ report proposes reform in two other main areas: recruit, develop and empower the most effective educators, and empower local innovation in exchange for accountability and results. The full report is available

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...