At a joint meeting on Jan. 10, the School Boards of Districts 65 and 202 discussed college and career readiness and the new common core state learning standards, whose goal is to prepare students for college and career readiness. They also discussed enhanced collaborative efforts to prepare students for college and career readiness. We are encouraged by the discussion and the collaborative efforts outlined at that meeting.

An important part of this new focus is monitoring how School Districts 65 and 202 are preparing students for college and career readiness. Illinois is a member of a partnership of 26 states that is now designing a new K-12 assessment system that will assess whether students are on track for college and career readiness. The new assessments will not be ready, however, until the 2014-15 school year. That’s more than three years down the road. We think that the measuring and monitoring process must begin now. We also think that Districts 65 and 202 should use ACT’s college readiness benchmarks as the measure.

Currently the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) requires eleventh-graders to take the ACT, a college admission test, as part of the Prairie State Achievement Exam. Based on a study of student performance at two- and four-year colleges and universities, the ACT has identified benchmark scores for college readiness that it says are the minimum scores needed to have a 50 percent chance of obtaining a “B” or higher or a 75 percent chance of having a “C” or higher in a given subject in college.

In its Race to the Top application submitted to the U.S. Department of Education last summer, ISBE concluded that ACT’s college readiness benchmarks match well with the new common core state standards. ISBE said Illinois would use those benchmarks as primary indicators of success in preparing students for college and career readiness. The percentage of ETHS students, by ethnicity, meeting ACT’s college readiness benchmarks is annually reported on ISBE’s website.

Last October, the District 65 School Board decided that the District would annually report, by ethnicity, the percent of eighth-graders who were on track to meeting ACT college readiness using benchmarks identified by Paul Zavitkovsky, of the Urban Education Leadership Program at the University of Illinois-Chicago. The benchmarks he identified were the 60th Illinois percentile in reading on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test and the 66th Illinois percentile in math. We strongly support reporting and monitoring that data, as well as data showing the percent of students meeting the benchmark scores on the EXPLORE test (an ACT test) that indicate being on track to college readiness.

So far, so good.

 What disturbs us is District 65’s use of scores generated on a different test, the SAT-10, to report being on track to college readiness. The District’s achievement report contains two charts entitled “College Readiness” that report the percent of District 65 eighth-graders who scored above the 50th and the 60th percentiles on the SAT-10. Dr. Hardy Murphy, District 65 Superintendent, wrote in a guest essay (Jan. 6 issue of the RoundTable) that it should be acknowledged that students performing at grade level (i.e. the 50th percentile) or at the top end of the SAT-10 should be regarded as prepared for college.

We could not disagree more.

There is no basis to use the 50th or 60th percentile on the SAT-10 as an indicator of college readiness. When District 65 administrators presented these SAT-10 charts at an October Board meeting, the only basis they gave for using the 60th percentile on the SAT-10 as a benchmark for college readiness was that Mr. Zavitkovsky identified the 60th “Illinois percentile” in reading on the ISATs as an indicator of being on track to ACT college readiness.

 “SAT-10 percentiles” and “Illinois percentiles,” however, are not the same. We have reported in several articles, including one at page 23 of this issue, that substantially higher percentages of students (both statewide and locally) score above the 50th percentile on the SAT-10 than score above the 50th “Illinois percentile.” District 65 cannot simply substitute the percent of students meeting the 50th or 60th percentile on the SAT-10 for Mr. Zavitkovsky’s benchmark based on the percent of students exceeding the 60th “Illinois percentile.” Doing so will substantially inflate the result.

The amount of that inflation is demonstrated by District 65’s own calculations. The District calculated that 29% of African American eighth-graders were above the 60th “Illinois percentile” in reading on the 2010 ISATs, meaning that 29% were on track to ACT college readiness using Mr. Zavitkovsky’s benchmark. Using the percent of students over the 60th percentile on the 2010 SAT-10, however, the District reports that 53% of African American eighth-graders are on track to college readiness.

Using the SAT-10 percentiles almost doubles the number of African American eighth-graders who are said to be on track to college readiness.

And here’s another data point. While the cohorts are different, ISBE reports that on the 2010 PSAEs, only 21% of ETHS African American eleventh-graders met ACT’s benchmarks for college readiness in reading.

We have asked District 65 administrators on three separate occasions for any studies, reports, etc. that support using the 60th percentile on the SAT-10 as a benchmark for college readiness. We have been provided none. We know of none. Using it as a measure of college readiness is unfounded. In our view, it grossly inflates the percent of students who are on track to college readiness. It artificially sets low expectations for students.

One statement in Dr. Murphy’s Guest Essay is that ACT scores under-predict success for African Americans. However, the research we have seen involving studies of multiple institutions concludes that there is no evidence that ACT scores under-predict success for African Americans. Moreover, we are not urging that the ACT benchmarks be used as a primary factor in the college admission process of an individual student, but that they be used to assess and monitor how a school system is doing in preparing its students for college and career readiness.

We have acknowledged in previous editorials that District 65 has made good progress in improving minority achievement, and we continue that acknowledgment. We think, though, District 65 should use better metrics in measuring student achievement going forward. It should stop using the 50th and 60th percentiles on the SAT-10 to report being on track to college readiness.