Both the Illinois House and the Illinois Senate unanimously passed the Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act, House Bill 5729, in May; and Governor Bruce Rauner signed it into law on July 29. State Senator Daniel Biss of Evanston sponsored the legislation in the Senate.

The Act states it is intended to address two key problems. First, about 50% of high school graduates enrolling in community colleges need remedial education. Second, Illinois employers report that recent graduates from high schools, community colleges, and public universities in Illinois “often lack the critical skills necessary to succeed in high-demand and growing occupational areas and that they are unable to find qualified workers to meet their industry needs.”

The purpose of the bill is to implement five strategies that “will lead to the development and implementation of a robust and coordinated postsecondary education and career readiness system in Illinois.”  The strategies are based on the recommendations of four advisory committees that were established by the legislature in the Spring of 2015.  The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and many educational and business groups provided input.

“This is a part of a long-term plan to really reorient our education system around college and career readiness and to make sure that we’re preparing young people for the work force opportunities that exist,” Sen. Biss told the RoundTable. As examples, he cited provisions in the bill which permit high schools that participate in a pilot program to establish “competency-based learning systems” in partnership with experts in their communities. Other provisions provide a structure to deal with the issue that too many students need to take remedial courses when they arrive in college.

“When kids get to college or a community college and need remedial coursework, particularly in mathematics, that significantly decreases their chances of completion,” Sen. Biss said.

 “HB 5729 presents an array of options that school districts may use toward college and career readiness,” said Ginger Ostro, Executive Director of Advance Illinois, an educational advocacy organization. “The provisions in this bill will better equip students for college and for a successful career as we make progress toward our goal” – that 60% of Illinoisans have a postsecondary certificate or degree by 2015.

Significantly, the Act does not require high school districts to implement any of the strategies provided in the bill; all are optional.

“The idea here was to put a structure in place and create flexibility for school districts that want to do innovative things,” said Sen. Biss. “The idea is to allow school districts to figure out what makes sense for them and to use successful implementations as a demonstration for other districts in the State. The bill puts in place some structures that allow some really important work to happen.”

Knowledge About  College and Careers

Under the Act, ISBE, the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB), the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE), and other agencies are required to define activities that will help students gain knowledge about college and various careers, starting in eighth grade. The agencies are also required to define what students should know about colleges and careers at the end of grades eight through twelve.

In doing this, the agencies must address: a) “career exploration and development;” b) “postsecondary institution exploration, preparation and selection;” and c) “financial aid and financial literacy.”

The goal is to educate students about college and career opportunities so they can make “better-informed postsecondary education decisions.” 

The Act does not mandate that school districts implement the model.

A Pilot for Competence-Based  Learning Systems

The Act establishes a pilot program in which high-school districts may volunteer to participate. Participating school districts must establish a “competency-based learning system,” and they may use that system instead of or in combination with current requirements that students complete a certain number of courses in core academic areas, such as math, English language arts, and science.  

The competency-based learning model is subject to ISBE approval and must include these elements:

• Students must demonstrate “mastery of all required competencies,” including mastery of  “adaptive competencies,” which are defined to include foundational skills needed for success in college, careers, and life, such as work ethic, professionalism, communication, collaborative and interpersonal skills, and problem-solving.

• Students shall advance once they have demonstrated mastery, and students shall receive more time and personalized instruction to demonstrate mastery, if needed.

• Students must be assessed using multiple measures in determining mastery.

• Students must be able to earn credit toward graduation in ways other than traditional coursework, such as through a supervised internship or a research apprenticeship.

Participating school districts in the pilot must partner with both a community college and a college in developing the competency-based learning model, and they shall also engage with the K-8 schools that feed students in their district and are encouraged to engage with community organizations and local businesses.

The Act limits the pilot to 12 school districts per year in the first two years of implementation, and 15 school districts per year after that.

Transitional Math Instruction in 12th Grade

The Act puts in place “an early warning mechanism” so that school districts can take aggressive action in senior year to prepare students who might otherwise need to take remedial courses in college, said Sen. Biss.

The Act requires ISBE and ICCB to jointly adopt statewide criteria for determining whether students at the end of 11th grade are ready for college-level mathematics courses in each of three pathways: (i) STEM, (ii) Technical, or (iii) Quantitative Literacy/Statistics. The statewide criteria shall include “standardized assessment results, grade point average, and course completions.”

Students who meet the criteria can choose whether or not to take math in 12th grade.

Students who do not meet the criteria will receive transitional math instruction in 12th grade, which must be aligned with a student’s selected pathway in math (i.e., STEM,  Technical, or Quantitative Literacy/Statistics). A student who successfully completes the transitional math instruction will be eligible for credit-bearing course work in the appropriate pathway in community college.

Each public university must publish criteria for placement of students into college-level math courses, and participating high schools must collaborate or partner with a community college.

The Board of a school districts may “opt out” of this strategy.

Reading Transitional Competencies

The Act provides that ISBE, ICCB, and IBHE, subject to the availability of funding, shall recommend competencies for reading and communication that, if attained by a student, will lead to the student’s being placed in a non-remedial course in a community college. The agencies are also required to recommend strategies to embed the competencies in high school coursework.

This is intended to put a structure in place to reduce the number of students needing remediation in reading and communication in college, similar to the structure provided in the Act for mathematics, Sen. Biss told the RoundTable. 

Endorsements on Diplomas

The Act gives high school districts the option of including an endorsement on a diploma, indicating that the student has attained the knowledge and skills important for success in both postsecondary education and employment.

To earn this endorsement, a student would be required to develop an individualized plan for postsecondary education or training, career and financial aid; complete a career-focused instructional sequence; and complete career exploration activities.

Students would also be required to demonstrate readiness to take non-remedial coursework in reading and math through criteria certified by the school district and a local community college. The criteria may include assessment scores, grade point average, course completions, or other locally adopted criteria.

The 55-page Act contains many other requirements and timelines to implement the five strategies.