Meeting Standards Might Not Be Enough

October 31, 2008

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Eighth graders take a test at Darwin Elementary
The state is releasing data today that shows more elementary students than ever before are meeting standards. But a new study says that doesn't mean those students will be prepared for high school—or beyond. A growing chorus of critics thinks something is wrong with the state's elementary school standards.

At Darwin Elementary School in Logan Square, the news is good today. In fact, it's been good—and getting better—for years. Eighty-six percent of 8th graders here now meet standards in reading.

Eighth grade teacher Kelly Halligan has seen the progress. The way she remembers it, when she started at Darwin only about 20 percent of kids were reading at grade level.

HALLIGAN: If I would have asked 12 years ago for them to read Edgar Alan Poe, Shakespeare, they would have given up before they got to the first page. I can tell every day that it's different.

But meeting standards—like these Darwin kids—isn't good enough.

That's according to a study out today by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

EASTON: If we're going to have high high-school standards we've got to have kids prepared for it. And that's going to mean pulling up the elementaries along the way.

That's researcher John Easton.

He says elementary standards are out of whack with high school expectations. And it's threatening students' chances at getting into college.

In his study, virtually no student just “meeting” standards in elementary school was able to score a 20 on the ACT college entrance exam. Only kids who exceed state standards are likely to hit that score, according to Easton.
 
TAPE: I wouldn't say that schools have gotten complacent. But this is sort of what our expectation has been around basic skills. And these upper grade need to be pushed to think harder and deeper. We're not really communicating that message to schools very well. And it may be that they don't know how to do it.

Easton's study will be hard for state education officials to ignore. They are faced with a 20-point drop-off in scroes between elementary schools and high schools.

Illinois' Deputy Superintendent of Schools is Susie Morrison.

MORRISON: Actually, we've heard the same thing for several years from our stakeholders in the field.

Illinois hasn't reviewed its statewide learning standards since they were created 11 years ago.

So for now, district officials are on their own to increase rigor and prepare kids for high school and college. Chicago Schools chief Arne Duncan says Chicago has begun asking elementary schools to do more.

DUNCAN: We've changed our performance policy and our scorecards to focus much more on exceeds, not just on meets.

The district has mandated that middle school teachers be certified in the subject they teach. He says tougher state standards would be welcomed.

DUNCAN: If a new standard needs to be set that's more accurate, we should embrace that.

To come up with new standards, U of C's John Easton says the state should do what he did: That is, figure out what it takes to get into college, and then work backward.

EASTON: It takes examining how do we get students in 11th grade to the point where we want them, and what's the trajectory they need all the way from preschool. That's the only way you can reasonably expect someone to be at the top of the mountain. You've got to know what the benchmarks are all the way up.

The state has just joined an initiative to review standards. It's called the American Diploma Project . It's supposed to ensure that high school graduates are prepared for college-level work. Thirty-three other states are also participating.

But state officials predict it will be close to two years before elementary standards are reviewed.

That's time Darwin kids don't have if they want to succeed in high school and college. There is a long way to go to get students to move from just meeting standards to exceeding them. This year, just two  percent of Darwin's 8th graders exceed reading standards.

The rest, even though they met state targets, are likely to enter high school unprepared.

I'm Linda Lutton. Chicago Public Radio.