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On Sept. 16, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) released preliminary results for Illinois students on the 2015 PARCC exam, which is replacing the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) and the Prairie State Achievement Exam. PARCC is a consortium of 11 states that participated in developing the new assessment.

The report gives the percent of students who scored in each of five performance categories:

• Level 1: Did not yet meet expectations,

• Level 2: Partially met expectations,

• Level 3: Approached expectations,

• Level 4: Met expectations, and

• Level 5: Exceeded expectations

The percentage of Illinois students who met or exceeded expectations (Levels 4 and 5 combined) for English language arts/literacy (Literacy) and math are shown in the accompanying table.

In releasing the data, State Superintendent Tony Smith said the data are incomplete and represents only students who took the test online, roughly 75% of the students. Results for students who took pencil-and-paper exams as well as in Braille, Spanish and ASL forms are not available yet.

The Performance Categories

On Sept. 16, ISBE voted to approve the cut scores for each of the five performance levels on PARCC. The cut scores determine the score a student must earn on the test in order to achieve a particular performance level. The cut scores that were adopted by ISBE were previously approved by the PARCC Governing Board, which is comprised of the chiefs in each PARCC member state.

A press release issued by ISBE on Sept. 16 says, “Students falling within level 4 or 5 have demonstrated that they have a thorough understanding of grade-level content and are on the right track to being ready for college-level coursework. Students receiving a 3 are approaching expectations, but may need additional assistance mastering content. Students receiving a 1 or 2 need more assistance in mastering the content and are in need of greater supports.”

Superintendent Smith said the State Board determined that only students scoring in levels 4 and 5 will be considered “proficient.” They are viewed as being on track to college readiness.

In terms of defining what being college ready means, PARCC states in a paper titled, College & Career Ready Definition, that “performing at the college and career ready level means graduating from high school and having at least a 75% likelihood of earning a grade of at least a ‘C’ in first-year college courses without the need for remedial coursework.”

This is part of the ACT’s definition, which has set college ready benchmark (CRB) scores in four subject areas. Those scores represent the level of achievement required for students to have a 50% chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in a corresponding credit-bearing first-year college course.

Alignment with NAEP Proficiency, CRB Benchmarks

While fewer Illinois students are meeting proficiency levels under PARCC than under the ISATs, this is due in large part because ISBE previously low-balled the cut scores to meet standards. For many years, the cut scores were set so low that students who were at serious risk of academic failure could still “meet standards.” In January 2013, ISBE raised the cut scores, but students who just met those scores have only about a 10% of meeting ACT’s college readiness benchmarks toward the end of high school.

The lower cut scores gave a puffed-up message to students and the public and made it appear that students were better prepared to succeed in their lives than they actually were.

While the results are still preliminary, it appears that the new cut scores to meet expectations on PARCC are more in line with the benchmarks for “proficiency” set by the U.S. Department of Education for the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test and with benchmarks that indicate being on track to college readiness identified by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) for the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test and identified by Paul Zavitkovsky of the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois-Chicago for the ISATs.

One potential outlier is high school math.

The accompanying chart illustrates how all these benchmarks are in the same range for eighth-graders in both math and reading. The chart shows 1) the percent of Illinois eighth-graders who are “proficient” and on track to college readiness on the PARCC test; 2) the percent of Illinois eighth-graders who are “proficient” on the 2013 NAEP test; 3) the percent of eighth-graders nationwide who are on track to being college ready on the MAP test, using cut scores identified in 2015 by the Northwest Evaluation System (that indicate being on track to obtain an ACT CRB score of 22 in math and 22 in reading); and 4) the percent of Illinois eighth-graders who are on track to college readiness on the ISATs, using the benchmarks identified by Mr. Zavitkovsky (that indicate being on track to obtain an ACT CRB score of 22 in math and 22 in reading).

In August 2011, the District 65 School Board decided it would measure student achievement for third- through eighth-graders using not only the “meet” and “exceed” standards of the ISATs, but also using benchmarks that were aligned with a much higher proficiency level: being on track for college and career readiness. Those benchmarks were identified by Mr. Zavitkovsky. District 65 was the first school district in Illinois to do so.

Subsequently, the District also began reporting the percent of students who were on track to college readiness using benchmarks identified by NWEA for MAP.

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...