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Members of the Illinois State Board of Education at their March 16 meeting, during which they heard an update on feedback regarding changes to standardized testing. (Screenshot via ISBE.net)

In an effort to improve state assessments for elementary and middle-school students, the Illinois State Board of Education is considering a wide range of potential updates to its current testing system, a spokesperson for the agency told the RoundTable this week.

Although a specific proposal is not yet on the table, possible changes include shifting to more frequent, shorter, intermittent tests throughout the year rather than one long and demanding assessment at the end of each spring. Additionally, other options are simply shortening the end-of-year exam, computerizing the test-taking process to deliver results more quickly and offering more individualized student assessments.

But any formal changes to the Illinois Assessment of Readiness, which measures math and language arts skills for students in third through eighth grades, would first have to be allowed by federal law and approved by the U.S. Department of Education, according to Jackie Matthews, ISBE’s Executive Director of Communications.

“We have consistently received feedback from Illinois schools that the current assessment takes too long, delivers results too late and adds too much undue stress to students and educators,” Matthews said. “This past fall, ISBE began conducting extensive statewide outreach to get feedback from teachers, school administrators, parents and students about how we can improve the federally required state assessment system.”

As part of that outreach, ISBE also surveyed more than 5,000 people across the state to learn more about public opinion regarding standardized testing and the IAR. Of the respondents, 75% said they were not satisfied with the current state assessment system while 50% said the testing needed “substantial change.” Meanwhile, when asked how they would feel about several shorter tests instead of one longer end-of-year assessment, 60% of survey participants said they would support such a system, 20% were against it and the remaining 20% were undecided.

Of course, any survey can have errors and inaccuracies, and it can be hard to gauge public opinion in a large state like Illinois. According to ISBE annual enrollment data, Illinois has more than 1.3 million public school students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and the state public education system also includes the third-largest public school district in the country in Chicago Public Schools.

Matthews also told the RoundTable that ISBE has held 12 focus groups in recent months to gather feedback from stakeholders on the best ways to improve the current testing system. ISBE officials are planning to present the results of those discussions to state board representatives at their next meeting on April 20.

One especially controversial topic in the overall testing conversation is the idea of expanding the IAR to include students in kindergarten through second grade. According to Matthews, 78% of Illinois school districts already spend their own money to administer assessments for that age group, so ISBE also used its survey to ask about instituting a statewide optional assessment for those youngest students. Of respondents, 25% were undecided and the remainder were split evenly between supporting and opposing the idea.

“We’re opposed to any testing for kindergarten through second graders,” said Kathi Griffin, President of the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. “As far as interim testing goes, it’s something that may work but only if it replaces the additional tests that many districts administer that are not needed for our state to receive federal education funding.”

When it comes to paying to assess students, individual districts and the state spend millions each year on contracts with testing agencies. Matthews told the RoundTable that ISBE is hoping to maintain or reduce the current level of spending on standardized tests, possibly by replacing the additional assessments that individual districts currently pay for themselves.

A spokesperson for Evanston/Skokie School District 65 did not respond to a request for comment on the district’s opinion on the IAR and how it would feel about the potential changes that ISBE is mulling over.

But based on initial reactions from IEA and others, ISBE will face plenty of opposition if it plans to institute more frequent testing across the state.

“We want to be clear: More testing is not the answer. More testing does not mean better educated students or better schools,” Griffin said. “Too much testing does mean teachers are forced to spend valuable classroom time preparing for and administering tests instead of working with our students to meet their academic and social/emotional needs.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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