The Illinois State Board of Education has done a great disservice to the students, parents and community members throughout this state. By setting a low benchmark to “meet standards” on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT), the state has set low expectations for students and is giving a misleading picture about the level of achievement needed to succeed in high school, college and today’s workplace.

At least two national studies have concluded that the benchmarks to “meet standards” on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) are among the lowest in the nation.

One study, “The Proficiency Illusion” (2007), conducted by the Northwest Evaluation Association and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, concluded that Illinois’ benchmarks for eighth-graders to “meet standards” in reading and math on the 2006 ISATs were set among the lowest of the states studied: 21st out of 26 studied for reading, and dead last of 23 states studied for math. The study found the Illinois benchmarks to meet standards in reading and math were set at the 22nd and 20th percentiles nationally, using the Measures of Academic Progress test as a yardstick.

Another study, “Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales: 2005-2007” (2008), conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics and Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education, concluded that the benchmark for eighth-graders to “meet standards” on the 2007 ISATs ranked very low compared to other states: 37th in reading and 44th in math. The study also found that the ISAT benchmarks for meeting standards in reading and math corresponded to scale scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, the Nation’s Report Card, that were each below the 25th national percentile.

Other studies have measured what it means to “meet standards” in terms of being on track for college readiness. In “From High School to the Future: ‘The Pathway to 20’” (2008), researchers with the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, found that Chicago eighth-graders who just meet standards in math, have less than a 5% chance of meeting ACT benchmarks for college readiness in eleventh grade.

Another study, “Something’s Wrong with Illinois Test Results” (2009), conducted by Paul Zavitkovsky of the Urban School Leadership Program at the University of Illinois-Chicago, found that Illinois eighth-graders met standards in reading on the 2006 ISATs if they were at the 22nd Illinois percentile (better than 22% of Illinois students who took the test). Yet, they need to be at the 60th Illinois percentile (better than 60% of the Illinois students who took the same test) to be on track for college readiness in reading.

Mr. Zavitkovsky’s report also concludes that the benchmarks to meet standards on the ISATs are grossly misaligned with the benchmarks to meet standards on the Prairie State Assessment Exam (PSAE), the state’s assessment for eleventh-graders. On the 2006 ISATs, eighth-graders could meet standards in reading if they scored at the 22nd Illinois percentile (at or above 22% of Illinois students who took the same test). To meet standards in reading as an eleventh-grader on the 2009 PSAEs, students needed to score at or above the 43rd percentile (at or above 43% of the Illinois students who took the same test).

Setting low benchmarks to “meet standards” sets low expectations. It gives a misleading picture about the level of achievement needed to succeed in high school, college and today’s workplace. It gives a misleading picture about progress being made toward closing the achievement gap in this state. It causes confusion when students, parents, administrators and interested community members compare eighth-grade ISAT results with eleventh-grade PSAE results.

While we appreciate that ISBE is working with other states in the “Common Core State Standards Initiative” to develop new common learning standards, we expect it will take several years before the standards and a new assessment system are adopted. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of children will be winding their way through Illinois schools.

We think ISBE should set much higher expectations for students when it sets a “meets standards” benchmark. Its benchmark should be more closely aligned with the level of achievement necessary to succeed in high school, to be on track for college and to succeed in today’s more demanding workplace. For our children’s sake, ISBE should do that now. There is no justification to continue with a broken assessment system when children’s futures are at stake.