For many years the proficiency levels to “meet standards” on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) were among the lowest in the nation. This matters because many students who were failing academically were being told that they were “meeting standards” in reading and math, and they were led to believe they were on target to do well in high school and beyond. In our view, they were misled.

The low bar to “meet standards” also dramatically lowered expectations for students. Instead of focusing on getting students to achieve at a proficiency level that would make a difference in their lives, ISBE put the focus on crossing a very low bar.

On Jan. 24, 2013 – in order to get a waiver from certain requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act – the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) authorized staff to raise the proficiency level (i.e., 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 new cut scores were a “more accurate” indicator of college and career readiness. In the report cards subsequently prepared by ISBE, it boldly claims that the new cut scores “align with college and career ready expectations.”

On Jan. 28, 2013, the RoundTable asked ISBE in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request to produce the reports, studies and analyses that ISBE performed to align the new cut scores with college and career ready benchmarks – asking, in other words, where’s the proof? ISBE refused to produce any documents, citing an exemption under the FOIA. The RoundTable appealed ISBE’s denial to the Public Access Counselor of the Attorney General’s Office (AG).

In that appeal, ISBE was forced to disclose that it had at least two studies in its possession that it had refused to produce: 1) a report prepared by unidentified consultants, titled, “Promoting College and Career Readiness for Illinois Students: A Review of Illinois Assessment Performance Categories,” and 2) a report prepared by “NCEA ACT” (a department of the ACT) in 2012 and titled, “Establishing College & Career Readiness Targets of Illinois.”

On May 30, 2014, 14 months after the RoundTable filed its appeal, the AG issued its non-binding opinion. The AG determined that ISBE “improperly withheld” certain documents and that it should produce the first report, together with certain spreadsheets, to the RoundTable. Second, the AG questioned whether ISBE had in fact identified all responsive records, and it directed ISBE to conduct a further search of its records and to produce any additional responsive records, subject to permitted redactions, to the RoundTable.

Since the AG’s opinion was entered, the RoundTable has asked ISBE on five occasions to produce the documents that the AG held it should produce. ISBE, however, has not produced anything.

In addition, ISBE has continued to withhold the second report prepared by “NCEA ACT.” This report is significant because ISBE touts ACT’s college readiness benchmarks in its online report cards, and this second report was prepared by a department of the ACT.  While the AG held that ISBE could withhold this report under an exemption to the FOIA, nothing precludes ISBE from producing it in the interest of transparency. ISBE acknowledged in the appeal process that ACT does not claim there is anything proprietary about the report.

ISBE’s past history in setting cut scores to “meet standards” is a disturbing one. The cut scores were set so low that students who were at serious risk of academic failure could still “meet standards.” On Jan. 24, 2013, Dr. Koch even acknowledged that setting the previous cut scores at a low level “did our students a disservice by not adequately assessing their ability to succeed after high school.”

While ISBE raised the cut scores in January 2013, an internal report prepared in early 2012 by ISBE researchers, Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D., and Rense Lange, Ph.D., indicates that the new cut scores are still low. One chart contained in the Agarwal/Lange report shows that eighth-graders who scored 267 on the ISATs in math (the new eighth-grade score needed to meet standards) would have only about a 10% probability of meeting ACT’s college readiness benchmarks in math in eleventh grade.

If only 10% of the eighth-graders who score a 267 in math will be college ready in math as eleventh-graders, a cut score of 267 is not linked to college readiness. Dr. Lange told the RoundTable he would like to see a cut score set at a point where at least 50% of the students achieving that particular score will be college ready by eleventh grade.

If the chart in the Agarwal/Lange report is used to identify an eighth-grade ISAT score where students have a 50% probability of being college ready in eleventh grade, the score would be 284. Significantly, Paul Zavitkovsky of the Urban Education Leadership Program at the University of Illinois-Chicago concluded, using a different methodology, that a score of 284 was the benchmark to indicate whether an eighth-grader was on track to college readiness in math.

In practical terms, if ISBE’s score of 267 is used as the benchmark, 59% of Illinois eighth-graders are deemed to be on track to college and career readiness in math. If a score of 284 is used, only 35% are.

For 2013, ISBE reported that only 40% of eleventh-graders were college ready in math. And this is after many low-performing students have dropped out of high school and are no longer counted in calculating that percentage.

Students, parents, teachers and the people of this State have a right to know what it really means to “meet standards” on the ISATs. And they should not have to simply take ISBE’s word that the new cut scores are aligned with college and career readiness. They should have full access to all the research reports that ISBE has in its possession that bear on this important topic.

ISBE should end its stonewalling. It should end its secretiveness. It should be open and transparent and be accountable.

 ISBE should produce the report and other documents that the AG determined it should produce to the RoundTable. Moreover, in the interest of openness and transparency, ISBE should produce the report prepared by the ACT.

Students, parents and people throughout this State deserve as much. ISBE, we are waiting.