On Aug. 22, the District 65 School Board decided it will measure student achievement for third- through eighth-graders using not only the “meet” and “exceed” standards of the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT), but also using benchmarks that are aligned with much higher proficiency levels: performance at grade level and being on track for college and career readiness. 

District 65 is the first school district in Illinois to do so. We commend District 65 for taking this important, forward-looking step.

While a number of states throughout the country have realigned the benchmarks to meet standards on their tests with college and career readiness, the State of Illinois has not done so. Illinois is continuing to use a benchmark to “meet standards” on the ISATs that is ranked among the lowest in the country – most recently, 41st in reading and 45th in math at the eighth-grade level. For eighth-grade reading and math, the benchmarks to “meet standards” on the ISAT are set at the 20th national percentile, using the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) and the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests as yardsticks.

Last year, at the RoundTable’s request, Paul Zavitkovsky of the Urban Education Leadership Program prepared extensive reports on student achievement at School Districts 65 and 202. The reports illustrated how using a low benchmark to “meet standards” on the ISATs gives the illusion that high percentages of students are proficient when in fact much lower percentages of students are performing at grade level, and still lower percentages are on track for college and career readiness.

The “meet standards” benchmark on the ISATs is leading many students to believe they are academically proficient when they are not. It puts the focus on the percentage of students who score at or above a very low proficiency level, and in so doing sets very low expectations and gives a misleading picture of student achievement.

Last year, the New York State Education Department raised the bar to meet standards on its tests given to third- through eighth-graders by aligning them with proficiencies needed to be on track to college and career readiness. In explaining its decision, Merryl H. Tisch, Chancellor of the N.Y Education Department, made a powerful statement which we think is applicable to the situation here in Illinois:

“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.”

District 65’s decision to use benchmarks aligned with grade-level performance and college and career readiness addresses these issues in a meaningful, progressive, bold way. It raises the bar; it sets higher expectations; and it measures achievement using proficiency levels that are more closely aligned with those needed to succeed in today’s world.

In commenting on the School Board’s decision, Paul Zavitkovsky of the Urban Education Leadership Program at the University of Illinois, said, “It looks to me like the District 65 Board is saying, ‘We don’t have to stick with a grading policy that makes meeting standards meaningless just because the State Board of Education is stuck there.’

“From what I can see, District 65 has simply decided to make better use of the information it already has so it can report more clearly on things that parents and taxpayers really want to know about. How many of our kids are on track for college and career readiness? How are we doing compared with state and national averages? How many of our students are at risk of school failure? What kind of progress are we making over time in each of these areas? This gives everybody a chance to ask better questions and to judge for themselves what’s working and what needs work. I wish more communities would insist on this kind of reportage. If more did, it might help the State Board feel a greater sense of urgency to do the same thing for all kids statewide.”

We echo these comments. We commend District 65 for taking this step.