One key goal in School District 65’s five-year strategic plan is to “ensure that students graduating from the District have the necessary skills to be successful in high school and adult life.” This goes to the heart of what District 65 is all about. In a series of editorials, we have urged the School Board to increase its expectations in measuring whether students are prepared for high school and beyond.

The School Board decided in September, without a formal vote, that one measure the District would use in assessing whether students are prepared for high school and beyond is “meeting standards” on the Illinois Standard Achievement (ISAT) test. The District will also look at the number of students performing at or above the 50th and 75th percentile ranks on the ISAT and the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests.

The Board, at the administration’s urging, decided not to use the EXPLORE test, which is part of the ACT family of tests.

As we start this editorial, we want to say upfront that we think the District has made progress in addressing minority achievement and that it has implemented many creative, research-based initiatives to do that. We understand that the teachers and administrators are working hard every day to educate our children. This editorial is about setting expectations for our children and how to measure whether those expectations are being met.

Meeting Standards on the ISATs

We do not think “meeting standards” on the ISATs is a credible standard to use in assessing whether students are prepared for high school and beyond. We have previously cited studies that found that changes to the test in 2006 made it easier to meet standards and that the cut scores (the passing grades) needed to meet standards on the ISATs are set very low.

A 2008 study of students in the Chicago public school system, “From High School to the Future: The Pathway to 20,” conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago (the U of C Study), found that students who just meet the state standard in math have, on average, less than a 5 percent chance of scoring a composite score of 20 on the ACT three years later. The ACT’s composite benchmark score for college readiness is 21.25. The study concluded that there was a “major misalignment” between meeting standards on the ISATs and being on track for college readiness.

The low bar set by the ISATs is also evidenced by two recent federal reports. Four weeks ago the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) issued the Nation’s Report Card, showing that only 33% of Illinois eighth-graders were “proficient” in math on the 2009 NAEP test. By contrast, 82% met standards on the ISATs.

Two weeks ago the National Center for Education Statistics, the Institute for Educational Sciences and the U.S. Department of Education, issued a report finding that at the eighth-grade level Illinois ranked 44th among the states in terms of setting rigorous standards for proficiency in math, and 37th in reading.

“Meeting standards” on the ISATs, in our view, is not a valid indicator of preparedness for high school and beyond. We should expect more.

The EXPLORE Test

We are also disappointed that the Board decided not to use the EXPLORE test as an accountability measure. School District 202 uses EXPLORE as one measure to assess incoming freshmen. The Illinois State Board of Education has recently encouraged school districts to administer EXPLORE. EXPLORE is closely aligned with the ACT, which is given as part of the Prairie State Achievement Exam to eleventh-graders and used by many colleges.

We think EXPLORE sheds much more light on whether students are prepared for high school and beyond than meeting standards on the ISATs.

With the exception of last year, the District’s eighth-graders’ results on the EXPLORE test have been essentially flat for the last eight years. The composite scale scores for black students during that period have been 14.5 or below; for Hispanic students they have been 14.9 or below – which are below the 16.25 EXPLORE benchmark for college readiness.

An ACT study published in December 2008 found that, on average, students who score a 15 on EXPLORE go on to score an 18 on the ACT – which is below the 21.25 ACT benchmark for college readiness. Many black and Hispanic students that are graduating from District 65 are thus not on track for college readiness.

ISAT Scale Scores

We used to have higher expectations. Ten and 20 years ago, when we talked about the achievement gap, it was framed in terms of the average percentile ranks of white and black students in the District. White students, on average, were at about the 85th percentile. Black students, on average, were at about the 45th percentile. White students were doing exceptionally well as a group, performing better than 85% of the students in the nation; black students were slightly below the national average. The community’s expectation in closing the achievement gap was to bring black students up to the 85th percentile rank.

Now, the achievement gap is measured in vastly different terms: the percent of students who have a score in excess of the cut score required to “meet standards” on the ISATs (a cut score we believe is set too low), or in terms of the percent of students who are performing at or above the 50th percentile rank. Ten and 20 years ago, the community was not satisfied with average; it expected more. Now, we seem to have a mindset that performing at or above a low threshold or at above the nation’s average seems to be okay.

While the percent of black and Hispanic students meeting standards on the ISATs has greatly increased over the years, there is still a substantial achievement gap. On the 2009 ISATs, the average scale score of the District’s white eighth-graders was 272 in reading, 23 points above the state average of 249. The District’s black eighth-graders had an average scale score of 246 in reading, 3 points below the state average and 26 points below that of white students.

To put this 26-point difference in context: White fourth-graders at District 65 had an average scale score of 249 in reading on the 2009 ISATs, a score that was three points higher than the average scale score of 246 of black eighth-graders in the District. Because the ISAT scale scores are set up as a “continuous standard scale across grades,” we asked the Illinois State Board of Education this question: If white fourth graders and black eighth-graders have the same scale score in reading on the ISATs, does that mean they are reading at the same achievement level?

ISBE answered, “Yes.”

The achievement gap measured by ISAT scale scores is continuing in very real terms, and the gap in scale scores has substantial implications in assessing whether a student is on track for college readiness.

In the last three years, black students have had average scale scores of 268, 262, and 271 on the ISAT in math; the U of C Study found that, on average, students who scored a 265 on the ISAT in math had about a 20 percent chance of reaching a 20 on the ACT three years later. We should expect more.

MAP Scores

The Board has also decided to look at the number of students performing at or above the 50th and 75th percentile ranks on the ISAT and MAP tests. We think using MAP is a step in the right direction.

The ISATs gather normative data by incorporating 30 questions from the tenth edition of the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT10). The 30 questions are a subset of the questions asked in the full version of the SAT10, and they are aligned with Illinois state standards.

The results on the ISAT-SAT10 are much higher than the results on the MAP test, which is a computerized adaptive test that has been given to the District’s middle school students for the last three years. For example, 86% of the District’s black eighth-graders performed above the 50th percentile in math on the 2009 ISAT-SAT10, while only 53% did on the spring 2009 MAP test; 69% of the District’s black eighth-graders performed above the 50th percentile rank in reading on the 2009 ISAT-SAT10, while only 52% did on the spring 2009 MAP test.

We think more data – such as the average percentile rank of students by subgroup, the number of students by subgroup performing between the 50th and 55th percentile rank, etc. – is necessary to understand this large discrepancy. But in addition, though, we need to understand that performing at the 50th percentile rank does not equate with being on track for college readiness. EXPLORE’s benchmark score for college readiness is 16.25; students who achieve that score are at around the 73rd percentile rank.

We should expect more.

Going Forward

We hope the Board will revisit this issue and set challenging goals that measure whether students in fact are prepared for high school and beyond. In today’s world, we think that means being on track for college. No student coming out of eighth grade should be so far behind that college is not a realistic opportunity for that student.

The U of C Study found that an ISAT score of 280 in math, on average, corresponded to about a 50 percent chance of scoring a 20 on the ACT. If the Board is resistant to using EXPLORE as an assessment measure, it should, at a minimum, set a score of 280 in math and a comparable score in reading as goals for all eighth-grade students. Even these would be modest targets.

We hope that School District 202 will follow suit and adopt a goal that students score at least a 20 on the ACT. We think this will serve children whether they choose college or another career path.

Decades ago, Marian Wright Edelman rightly said that our children’s achievement is the measure of our success. We owe it to our children to have high expectations for them, to tell them that being average is not being on track to go to college or to succeed in today’s world.