The first step to solving any problem is getting accurate information on the extent of the problem.
In Illinois education, that step will be taken in elementary schools beginning next spring. And it’s not going to be pleasant.
As one of many reforms undertaken by the Illinois State Board of Education, elementary students next spring are going to be given a test that will more accurately judge whether they meet state standards. The Illinois State Achievement Tests (ISAT), which have been given in the past, show that 82 percent of students meet the state standards. What’s always been confusing is that the test given to high school juniors shows that 51 percent of the students meet the standards.
The students aren’t getting dumber as they age and the teaching at the high school level isn’t worse. It’s the tests that were wrong. Educators have known for some time that the ISAT test is simply too easy.
That’s going to change next spring and the results will shock some educators and many parents who have been misled into believing their students were doing well.
In a report released Tuesday by the respected education advocacy group, Advance Illinois, it was reported that about a third of Illinois students are proficient in reading by the fourth-grade level and about a third are proficient in math at the eighth-grade level. That means that a majority of our students are behind as early as the fourth grade. And once a student is behind, it’s hard to catch up.
The Advance Illinois report illustrates how hard: of 100 students who enter the ninth grade in Illinois, 71 will graduate from high school, 55 will attend a post-secondary institution and 29 will receive a post-graduate degree. That’s a dismal record, especially when you consider that eight out of 10 jobs in Illinois requires training beyond a high school degree.
The goal in Illinois is, by 2025, to have 60 percent of students receiving post secondary degrees. Advance Illinois advocates that the path to that goal involves more ambitious and rigorous instruction, collaborative and skilled teachers, effective school leaders, supportive environments including a renewed emphasis on counseling and involved families. Those are five goals that are easy to write down, but hard to achieve.
The good news is that Illinois has already laid the groundwork for a lot of this plan. The General Assembly and the State Board of Education are already involved in attaining more accurate data, increasing academic rigor and improving teacher and principal evaluation and training.
The concern is whether Illinois can stick to the plan. Changing educational outcomes will not happen overnight and everyone involved — and that includes parents and community members — must commit to making the changes that are necessary. It will also be challenging to take on these changes against the backdrop of a recovering economy and the state’s financial fiasco.
The alternative, however, isn’t acceptable. In the last decade — despite No Child Left Behind and many other school improvement programs — educational outcomes in Illinois have basically stayed the same. The state can’t afford to let another decade slip away.
Illinois has done a lot of working putting the reforms into place. But the harder work — turning ideas into realities and keeping with the plan — is ahead of us.