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On Aug. 22 the District 65 School Board is scheduled to decide on the Board’s goals for next year and perhaps the next three years. The Board is also scheduled to decide on the measures it will use to report, assess and monitor student achievement in the District.

Good measures are essential to enable the Board to assess whether the District’s educational programs and initiatives are improving the achievement of all students along the entire achievement spectrum – those at the top, the middle and the bottom. They are also essential to provide parents and the community a candid, transparent analysis of whether the District is improving the achievement of all students and preparing more students to be ready for college and/or careers.

Inadequacy of the ISAT “Meet Standards” Benchmark

Last year, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) adopted the Common Core State Standards as Illinois learning standards for grades K-12. The goal of these new standards is to prepare students to be successful in college and the workforce in a competitive global economy. They set out what students should know when they graduate from high school and what they should know to be on track for college and career readiness at each step along the way, including in the elementary and middle school grades.

The new standards reflect a growing recognition that for students to be college and career ready by the end of high school, they need to be on track for college readiness when they are in third through eighth grades.

ISBE has not yet adopted a new assessment system to measure student performance under the new standards and the new assessments will not be ready until the 2014-15 school year. In the interim, ISBE will continue to administer the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT), using the same benchmarks to “meet standards” that it has used in the past.

When students take the ISATs, they are assigned a “scale score” in reading, math and science. A student’s scale score is determined by the number of his or her correct responses to questions in the test, which questions reflect a range of complexity. In order to achieve higher scale scores, a student must answer the more complex questions correctly. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has set “cut scores” that a student needs to achieve to “meet standards” for each subject and grade.

Many national and local studies have concluded that Illinois has set a very low cut score to “meet standards” on the ISATs and that numerous changes to the test, particularly in 2006, have made it substantially easier to meet standards.

According to information provided last year to the RoundTable through the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the cut scores to meet standards on the ISATs for eighth-grade reading and math are set at the 20th national percentile, using the National Assessment of Education Progress Test as the yardstick.

A study released just last week on Aug. 10, “Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales: 2005-2009” (2011), conducted by NCES at the U.S. Department of Education, concluded that the benchmark for eighth-graders to “meet standards” on the 2009 ISATs ranked very low compared to other states: 41st in reading and 45th in math.

In a study, “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 11th 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 ACT college readiness in reading.

Using low benchmarks to “meet standards” on the ISATs gives a misleading picture of student achievement. It puts the focus on the percent of students performing above a very low threshold – a threshold that is based on low expectations and that is not aligned with the proficiencies needed to succeed in today’s world.

College Readiness Benchmarks for Grades 3 – 8

Some states that are addressing college readiness have taken the ACT college readiness scores for eleventh and twelfth graders and have backmapped them to grades 3 through 8. In doing so, they have identified scores on their state tests for grades 3 through 8 that are linked to being on track to meet the ACT college readiness benchmarks upon graduation from high school.

For example, the National Center for Educational Achievement, a department of ACT, has worked with the boards of education in Arizona, Arkansas and Texas to set targets for grades 3-7 to be on track for college readiness. The college readiness benchmarks on EXPLORE, a test in the ACT family of tests, are used for eighth grade.

Last year, the New York State Education Department changed the cut scores on its tests given to third- to eighth-graders to align them with college-ready performance. In explaining its decision, Merryl H. Tisch, Chancellor of the N.Y Education Department, said:

“We are doing a great disservice when we say that a child is proficient when that child is not. Nowhere is this more true than among our students who are most in need. There, the failure to drill down and develop accurate assessments creates a burden that falls disproportionately on English Language Learners, students with disabilities, African American and Hispanic young people and students in economically disadvantaged districts – who turn out to be much further behind than anyone recognized. The Regents and I believe these results can be a powerful tool for change. They clearly identify where we need to do more and provide real accountability to bring about the focused attention needed to implement the necessary reforms to help all of our children catch up and succeed.”

While the ISBE has not realigned the ISAT’s cut scores with college readiness, it has encouraged Illinois school districts to administer the EXPLORE test to eighth-graders, and it has endorsed using EXPLORE’s benchmark scores for college readiness in its Race to the Top application.

In addition, Paul Zavitkovsky of the Urban Education Leadership Program at the University of Illinois-Chicago has identified ISAT scale scores that indicate when students are likely to be on-track for ACT college readiness at grades 3 through 8 (i.e. have a 50-50 or better likelihood of meeting or exceeding college-readiness benchmarks in 11th grade).

Mr. Zavitkovsky’s estimates are based on five years’ of statewide and district-level comparisons between 8th-grade ISAT and 11th-grade ACT scores, three years of comparisons between fifth and eleventh grade scores and five years of comparisons from grades three through eight. In all cases, he says he found that students statewide typically needed to be at or above the 60th Illinois percentile in reading and at or above the 66th Illinois percentile in math, to be on track for ACT college readiness in 11th grade.

In “Something’s Wrong With Illinois Test Results”, Mr. Zavitkovsky says, “The specific ISAT scores that predict ACT college readiness vary from district to district, depending on the demographics of the student population and the academic expectations of high schools students attend.” He adds, though, “Despite these differences, it is still possible to make general predictions about ACT college readiness. … Across grades and subject areas, there appears to be a consistent relationship between particular sets of ISAT scores and the ACT scores that students need to achieve to reach college readiness at the end of grade 11.”

At the RoundTable’s request, Mr. Zavitkovsky identified the 2010 ISAT scale scores aligned to these Illinois percentile ranks for grades 3 through 8. The scores are listed in the table below. The accompanying charts (click on link below) show how the scores match up with the cut scores to “meet standards” and the average scale score of all students who took the test.

ISAT Cut Scores to Be On Track
For ACT College Readiness

Grade      Reading      Math
 3rd            219           230
 4th            227           242
 5th            238           254
 6th            247           267
 7th            251           276
 8th            256           284

Mr. Zavitkovsky says, “It’s clear that many factors beyond ACT scores contribute to college success, and we need to find responsible ways to measure them all. But academic capacity is a pretty indispensible part of the mix. It’s hard to conceive of a credible way to assess how well an elementary school or district is preparing students for college and career readiness without including measures that correlate well with the ACT or [the College Board’s] SAT.”

Mr. Zavitkovsky adds that elementary schools and districts need a “constellation” of measures “to meaningfully assess what is happening at different points on the achievement spectrum, and that these constellations should be broken down and tracked over time by gender, ethnicity and family income status.”

In addition to the data reported by ISBE, he suggests that school districts report the following data to provide a picture of how the district is doing across the full range of student achievement: a) the percent of students scoring at/above the ISAT scale scores he has identified for college readiness; b) the percent of students scoring at/above the average scale score of all students who took the same ISAT test; c) the average ISAT scale score of students, with the percentile rank of the average scale score compared with Illinois students who took the test; and d) the percent of students scoring in the lowest quartile compared with all students tested statewide.

For a more in depth article, click on “Setting Targets for Grades 3-12 Linked to the ACT’s College Readiness Benchmarks,” with a link below.


D65 School Board Decisions on Measures of Achievement

On Oct. 18, 2010, the District 65 School Board decided that it would consistently measure and monitor the percent of students, by ethnicity, who are on track for college readiness. The Board decided the District would measure the percent of students on track for college readiness using ISAT scale scores aligned to the 60th Illinois percentile in reading and the 68th Illinois percentile in math. Several Board members also said the District should measure not only whether students were on track for college readiness at eighth grade, but at earlier grade levels starting with third grade.

The Board also decided it would consistently measure the percent of students, by ethnicity, scoring above the mean ISAT scale score (the 50th percentile) of students taking the ISATs. Several Board members asked that this and other data be disaggregated by both race and household income (e.g. African American students who were from low-income households).

The Board contemplated it would incorporate these decisions into Board goals, which has not yet been done. The Board is scheduled to discuss measures of achievement at its Aug. 22 meeting.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...