A coalition of teachers’ unions, attorneys and parent groups is pushing for a long list of changes to the standardized test that Illinois elementary school students take each spring.
They’re motivated by a widely held view, including the Illinois State Board of Education — that the current test doesn’t do much for students or teachers.
Currently, two of the biggest complaints are about timing. Results come after the end of the school year, so teachers cannot help students with identified weaknesses before they move on to the next grade. The test, known as the Illinois Assessment of Readiness (IAR), also takes up a lot of class and class time. In addition to these lawsuits, the coalition for the examination reform is fighting for more accessibility for students with disabilities.
But the coalition fears the state education board is running out of time to make big changes by 2025. That’s when Pearson, the testing company that runs the reading and math tests for third through eighth graders, will be out of contract.
Amid strong opposition last spring, the board backed down on its idea of replacing the April exam with three smaller tests spread throughout the year and has been publicly quiet ever since. Last week, a state audit committee made reform recommendations to the board, including shortening the spring test and finding ways to get results back sooner.
But the recommendations are not very detailed, and the next steps will be more discussions and meetings.
Change advocates are urging action to be taken as soon as possible.
“The time is now,” said Monique Redeaux-Smith, director of professional affairs at the Illinois Federation of Teachers, one of the state’s two largest teacher unions and part of the coalition. By mid-2025, the state will either have committed to a new standardized test provider or will have developed a new test itself.
If the board isn’t moving quickly, it might be too late to create a test that’s significantly different from the current one, Redeaux-Smith said.
And the tests don’t go away. They are required by federal law for school accountability purposes, and even harsh critics of tests say they are one of the only ways to measure inequalities between schools. And the stakes are now upping. Test results plummeted during the pandemic. In 2022, only 17.3% of third graders met class standards for English and language arts, up from nearly 40% in 2019.
In the meantime, there is pressure to ensure that the state’s money is well spent. Illinois is expected to spend $28.4 million on the test this school year.
The Council of State’s attempt at reform
Last spring, the state board of education appeared poised to enact major changes to the IAR by the 2025 deadline. The State Council launched this process in 2021, prompted by concerns about the learning loss caused by the pandemic and the time it took for results to be reimbursed.
The Board and its State Assessment Review Committee had partnered with consultants from the Center for Assessment, a New Hampshire organization dedicated to improving standardized tests. Together, these groups surveyed a group that primarily included educators, although many said they did not fully understand the questions and did not respond.
Their recommendation was to replace the spring test with three smaller tests spaced evenly throughout the year. The results of these ‘intermediate assessments’ would be returned quickly, measuring student progress rather than an end-of-year assessment like the current IAR. This plan would have required the approval of the US Department of Education.
But proponents strongly opposed it, saying three tests a year, even shorter tests, would make test preparation an even bigger focus of class time. Samay Gheewala, associate director of the parents’ group Illinois Families for Public Schools, said the focus on reading, writing and math, the topics on the tests, crowded out other disciplines. “Things like science get swept out of the way as ‘specials,'” Gheewala said.
In response to these objections, State Superintendent Carmen Ayala announced that the state would repeal the three-a-year plan. At first, Ayala went ahead and said it would be beneficial to work on improvements sooner rather than later. “We can use some of the federal funds for pandemic assistance to improve our state assessment, and as you know those funds have an expiration date,” she said in March.
But the State Council quickly reversed course. “We will not be making any changes to the IAR at this time,” Ayala said at the ISBE monthly meeting in May. Meanwhile, in November, Ayala announced plans to retire in February. A new superintendent was not named.
What proponents want
The state is considering options pushed by proponents, such as B. Faster processing and evaluation reports that are more useful for parents and educators. The country’s examination board is also considering switching to adaptive testing, in which students who make mistakes are assigned easier questions and advanced students are given progressively more difficult questions.
But the coalition fears that the board is going too slowly. It has more detailed plans ready for the board to consider.
For example, the results reports they wanted would not just provide data—they would present suggestions for improving individual teachers’ teaching and individual students’ learning. This seems particularly urgent given the pandemic learning losses.
Paul Zavitkovsky, a coalition member pushing for test changes and a professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, says the current report is unfathomable to most teachers and parents. “For most people who aren’t wading around in this stuff every day, there’s no reason people would really understand what these numbers mean,” he said.
Currently, students are given a numerical “scale score” that fits into one of five categories, ranging from “Beyond Expectations” to “Not Yet Met Expectations.” Score reports also indicate whether a student scored high, medium, or low in several subcategories, including vocabulary, writing, and mathematical reasoning.
Zavitkovsky says assessment reports should include sample test questions — examples of the types of questions the student was likely to have trouble with based on their score. “It’s something parents and teachers can use,” he said. “Actual passages that children need to read or assignments they are given.”
Advocates also say they are working with the state to develop an adaptive design, but some would like additional resources to ensure accurate outcomes for students with disabilities.
Bev Johns of the Learning Disabilities Association of Illinois wants more school staff to be trained in both testing and disabilities so they can meet with special needs students in person before testing. The goal is to have enough staff to request test materials and accommodations that meet the needs of each student.
Pearson, the company that makes the IAR, provides housing that schools can order. The company offers tools such as paper tests, Spanish-language versions of the math test, extended time, braille, and a human reader or signer to ask questions of students with reading difficulties.
But Johns says some students need additional housing that test designers may not have anticipated. She remembers a student from her days as a special education teacher who needed a human reader. After questioning the reader, Johns says, “I found out that she got nervous around new people. So she wouldn’t do well [with] someone she didn’t know.” In the end, Johns had to ask permission to make an audio recording of the test himself.
One-time requests, such as having a familiar voice read the questions, must be submitted and approved by the state school board. Currently, many districts are understaffed for special education, so ordering or requesting materials that meet each student’s individual testing needs would be a difficult task.
Are reforms realistic?
The state’s test review committee identified some potential downsides to major reforms, including returning results more quickly, improving results reporting and shortening the year-end test.
For example, the examinations committee wrote in its report last week that speeding up the grading process could mean machines can grade the “constructed answers” written by students, which could lead to “issues of trust” in the accuracy of the results. The constructed answer questions are relatively new for state tests and are designed to assess higher-order reasoning skills that emphasize the state’s learning standards. These answers can be more difficult for machines to evaluate. The committee also noted that the test could not be significantly shortened without removing content “that assesses higher-order thinking.”
The committee also noted that adaptive design tests require more question sets and can be expensive to develop.
As for the more specific coalition requests, some would need even more government funding for standardized testing. For example, to truly meet the needs of test-takers with disabilities, the state would need to help schools and counties hire more educators with expertise in both special education and standardized testing.
According to Zavitkovsky, the UIC testing expert, and Brian Minsker, legislative director at the Illinois Parent Teacher Association, testing companies are not used to providing sample items in assessment reports. Neither was aware of any company that currently makes them available for government standardized tests. The state’s examination board also said releasing test questions would increase costs for the state.
Minsker believes the less detailed reports used now are a holdover from No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration’s law that focused heavily on urging schools to improve their scores. The results reports were designed so that schools and districts could analyze groups of students rather than individuals. “The whole focus of how districts handled state assessments was to get kids over the problem [score threshold]not how the assessment might inform or influence teaching.”
No Child Left Behind has since been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which no longer penalizes underperforming schools. But to create new parent- and teacher-friendly assessment reports, Illinois would have to work with a company to create something new.
Still, proponents hope the new test will be significantly different from the current one when it arrives.
“We worked closely together [the state board] on a vision for what we want for standardized testing,” said Redeaux-Smith of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. If the new assessment includes an adaptive design, quick turnaround, and useful reports for teachers, Redeux-Smith says, “Illinois could be an inspiration to the rest of the country.”
Char Daston covers the training for WBEZ.