School District 65 eighth-graders showed improvement on the EXPLORE test in December 2008 compared to the prior year according to a “Report on Student Achievement” released by School District 202 on Sept. 14. On that most recent EXPLORE test, the composite score for African-American students was 14.5, compared to 14.2 in the prior year; for Latino students it was 14.8, compared to 14.4 in the prior year; and for white students it was 19.7, compared to 19.4 in the prior year. EXPLORE’s benchmark score toward college readiness is 16.25.

The percentage of African-American eighth-graders performing above the 50th percentile rank nationally also showed a substantial gain last year. Sixty-two percent of African-American students preformed at or above the 50th percentile rank nationally (meaning that 62 percent performed better than the national average) on the EXPLORE test given in December 2008, compared to 49 percent in the prior year. The percent performing above the 50th percentile rank for Hispanic students was 54 percent, for white students it was 94 percent.

District 202 gives the EXPLORE test to District 65 eighth-graders each year as one of a number of tests and methods used to assess incoming freshmen. EXPLORE is part of the ACT family of tests, and it is designed to be given to eighth- or ninth-graders. Eleventh-graders take the ACT as part of the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE), which is the state’s mandated assessment at high school.

Over time, District 65 eighth-graders’ composite scores on the EXPLORE have shown little progress. The composite scores by subgroup for the last eight years are as follows:

  • African Americans: 14.1, 13.3, 13.6, 14.0, 14.2, 14.1, 14.2, 14.5
  • Latino: 14.5,14.7, 14.9, 14.2, 14.9, 14.8, 14.4, 14.8
  • White: 19.5, 19.5, 19.4, 19.3, 19.4, 19.5, 19.4, 19.7

By contrast, District 65 eighth-graders have made substantial gains on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) during the same period, with the highest gains being made by minority students. For example, 42% of District 65’s African-American eighth-graders met or exceeded standards on the 2002 ISATs; the percentage jumped to 78% on the 2009 ISATs. The ISATs are the state’s mandated assessment for elementary grade levels

District 65 officials have said they do not believe the EXPLORE test is a reliable measurement of whether a student is meeting state standards. District 202 officials, however, have said that EXPLORE is closely aligned with state standards and point out that EXPLORE is part of the ACT family of tests, and that the ACT test is given as part of the PSAEs. The State Board of Education has recently launched a program under which it encourages school districts to administer the EXPLORE test.

A recent study prepared by researchers with the Consortium on Chicago School Research concluded that the ISATs set low academic standards for eighth-graders. “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,” says that report. The benchmark for college readiness on the ACT is 21.25.