Evanston news delivered free to your inbox! 

For many years, the proficiency levels to “meet standards” on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) were among the lowest in the nation and substantially below the proficiency level needed to be on track to college and career readiness.

On Jan. 24, 2013, the ISBE Board authorized staff to raise the cut scores to “meet standards” on the ISATs. In a prepared statement announcing the change, State Superintendent of Education Christopher A. Koch said, “The lower expectations of the previous performance levels did our students a disservice by not adequately assessing their ability to succeed after high school.”

ISBE says the new cut scores are a “more accurate” indicator of college and career readiness.

Yet, an internal report prepared in early 2012 by ISBE researchers, Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. and Rense Lange, Ph.D. shows that the new cut scores are still below the proficiency level needed to be on track to college and career readiness as defined by the ACT. The Agarwal/Lange report found that Illinois eleventh-graders need to be at or above the 65th Illinois percentile in reading and math to be on track to ACT’s benchmarks for college and career readiness.

The new cut scores adopted by ISBE on Jan. 23 were set at about the 42nd Illinois percentile, 23 percentile points too low.

So what is the basis for the new ISAT cut scores? In a memorandum provided to ISBE’s Board for the Jan. 24, 2013 meeting, Dr. Koch said, “Staff utilized an ‘equipercentile equating process’ to determine the new performance levels. With this process, a cohort-student group analysis was used to backmap performance levels from the Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE) to 8th grade ISAT performance. The results were then used to backmap from 8th grade to 7th and through 3rd grade. Subsequent to these analyses, the process was presented to the Technical Advisory Committee for ISBE.”

The RoundTable’s FOIA Request

On Jan. 28, 2013, the Evanston RoundTable submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act, asking ISBE to produce “all studies, analyses, reports, memoranda, charts or other documents that were prepared as part of or that refer to the equipercentile equating process, the cohort-student group analysis, and the backmapping referred to” in the Dr. Koch’s memorandum to the ISBE Board.

The RoundTable also asked ISBE to produce all studies, analyses and other documents prepared or reviewed by the ISBE’s Technical Advisory Committee and all studies prepared by or on behalf of ISBE that attempted to equate ISAT scores with college readiness benchmarks of the ACT.

ISBE noted that it had previously produced the Agarwal/Lange report to the RoundTable, and it refused to produce any other documents, claiming the documents were exempt because they were “preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated.” The exception does not apply, though, if a document is “publicly cited and identified” by the head of an agency; and it does not apply to factual matter or to a final document.

AG Orders ISBE to Produce One Report and Some Spreadsheets

On March 19, 2013, the RoundTable appealed ISBE’s refusal to the Public Access Counselor of the Attorney General’s Office (AG). The parties submitted numerous papers in support of their respective positions.

Fourteen months later, on May 30, 2014, the AG issued its opinion and “non-binding” order in an eleven-page letter. The AG ordered ISBE to produce to the RoundTable a report titled, “Promoting College and Career Readiness for Illinois Students: A Review of Illinois Assessment Performance Categories.” The AG concluded that this report was not exempt from disclosure because it was publicly cited and identified by Dr. Koch in his memorandum to the Board.

Second, the AG ordered ISBE to produce certain spreadsheets prepared by ISBE staff.

Third, the AG questioned whether ISBE had produced “all documents that were prepared as part of or that refer” to the equipercentile equating process, the cohort-student group analysis, and the backmapping referred to in the Superintendent’s memorandum to the Board. The AG directed ISBE “to search all recordkeeping systems that are likely to contain responsive records and to provide Evanston RoundTable with a description of its search and any additional records, if any, subject to permissible redactions under section 7 of FOIA.”

On June 18, an ISBE representative told the RoundTable that ISBE was working on the production.

AG Allows ISBE to Withhold Other Documents

The AG upheld ISBE’s position that it was not required to produce minutes of meetings (February 2012 and August 2012) of the Technical Advisory Committee because the minutes “consist primarily of opinions, recommendations, and analysis provided by TAC consultants to ISBE…” and “the meeting minutes do not document any final action being taken.”

In addition, the AG also upheld ISBE’s claim that a report prepared by “NCEA ACT” in 2012 and titled, “Establishing College & Career Readiness Targets of Illinois” was exempt as a pre-decisional document containing opinions and recommendations. The AG says the report contains “proposed revisions to cut scores.” ISBE said in filings with the AG that staff decided not to recommend these scores to the ISBE Board.

In 2012, NCEA (the National Center for Educational Achievement) was a department of ACT, Inc., and one of its functions was to identify cut scores on state tests for grades 3-12 that align with ACT’s college readiness benchmarks.

Even though the AG concluded ISBE could withhold the minutes of the Technical Advisory Committee and the report prepared by NCEA ACT, nothing precludes ISBE from disclosing those documents to the public in the interest of transparency and full disclosure.

A link to the AG’s opinion and order is provided below.

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...