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The year 2011 finds school districts across the country in a transition involving standards of excellence in a new era of educational reform. This national conversation is being defined by “student growth” and “college readiness.” Both concepts are emerging as ways to resolve the national debate about state accountability systems. And, this debate has not escaped District 65.

As the District 65 Superintendent of Schools over the past decade, it is satisfying for me to see that even the most critical analyses show an improvement in achievement for all District 65 students over this time. And, for African American students, who are the primary subject of these analyses, it is pleasing to see more achieving at grade level and above. The analyses show a substantial increase of African American students above grade level and achieving at what is now termed “college ready.”

Some measures of our student progress, “meeting and exceeding standards” and “national percentile ranks,” show a significant closing of the achievement gap (gap). Other measures, such as “scale score” comparisons do not paint so rosy a picture. It is troubling that after years of struggling with the gap, achievement can still be predicted by a student’s skin color. If public education is to make good on the expectation of being the “great equalizer,” we must address this concern and prepare our students for the full array of challenges they will face in their journey toward responsible citizenship.

In defining the concepts of “college readiness” and “growth,” it is important not to repeat the mistake of limiting our definitions to cut scores and proficiency measures or predictions from a single set of test scores. These concepts are much more. Measurement-driven definitions, if not handled properly, can entangle the debate about progress in a web of numbers that ill serves those for whom public education represents the route to equal opportunity.

Factors related to “college readiness” (including achievement test scores, race, and ethnicity) are not new to the accountability discussion. And, a considerable body of research shows that limiting predictions of college readiness to ACT and SAT test score is inadvisable.

In “Reflections on a Century of College Admissions Tests,” published in the December 2009 edition of The Educational Researcher, Richard C. Atkinson and Saul Geiser review ACT and SAT score predictions and college success. They state that “After decades of…studies, our best prediction models…still account for only about 25% to 30% of the variance in outcome measures…This means that some 70% to 75% of the variance is unexplained. That should not be surprising in view of the many other factors that affect student performance.”

Research shows ACT /SAT scores often under-predict success for African Americans. Powerful factors, including how they are treated, test bias, cultural differences, and institutional racism may explain and alter these predictions. Making decisions about student readiness and capabilities based solely upon one set of predictions from a single set of test score relationships only tighten the shackles of low expectations.

There are many examples in the research where students defy these predictions. High expectations and affirmation of success make a difference in achievement because teachers and their students are at the heart of the matter. They try harder when they are encouraged and believe in themselves. And, narrowly defining college readiness through a limited set of test score predictions is not just inadvisable, it is inappropriate. “The thing that accounts for the gap is the treatment that the kids get,” says Dr. Abdul Ali Shabazz, a mathematics professor and graduate programs coordinator at Clark Atlanta University (Ga.). (See Taylor, R. (2007, June), A degree of success, Diverse Education) “Test scores have nothing to do with it.”

It should be acknowledged that students functioning at/above grade level or at the top end of the achievement distribution on any major achievement measure, including the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, California Achievement Test, and the Stanford-10, (currently in the center of our local debate because of its relationship with Illinois Standards Assessment Test), are demonstrating this preparedness. These are students prepared to take the journey toward responsible citizenship.

Viewing “college readiness” as prepared to successfully address the academic challenges required of students at any point in their educational journey, opens up possibilities instead of creating limitations. One could say that it describes students demonstrating “scholarship” and value of learning through inquisitiveness, reflection, diligence in academic pursuits, and the intellectual stamina to pursue solutions through trial and error. Acknowledging achievement and capabilities creates an environment of possibilities and success necessary to encourage greater achievement through continued scholarship.

Regardless of the lens used, all students in District 65 are achieving at higher levels over time. And while different standards will define the new era of educational reform, I am confident that we and our students will meet this challenge successfully.