The standardized test for students in Illinois gets low marks. Will the state meet a 2025 deadline to fix it?

Most observers say the test doesn’t do much for students or teachers, but advocates worry the state is moving too slowly to make big changes.

There's broad agreement the state test elementary students take each spring needs an overhaul, but advocates worry time is running out to change it. Here, students at Darwin Elementary School in Chicago work on a diagnostic test last fall. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
There's broad agreement the state test elementary students take each spring needs an overhaul, but advocates worry time is running out to change it. Here, students at Darwin Elementary School in Chicago work on a diagnostic test last fall. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

The standardized test for students in Illinois gets low marks. Will the state meet a 2025 deadline to fix it?

Most observers say the test doesn’t do much for students or teachers, but advocates worry the state is moving too slowly to make big changes.

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A coalition of teachers unions, advocates and parents’ groups are pushing a long list of changes to the standardized test Illinois elementary students take each spring.

They are motivated by a widely shared view, including by the Illinois State Board of Education — that the current test doesn’t do much for students or teachers.

Currently, two of the biggest complaints revolve around timing. The results arrive after the school year ends so teachers can’t help students with identified weaknesses before they move to the next grade. The test, known as the Illinois Assessment of Readiness (IAR), also consumes significant classroom and instructional time. In addition to these complaints, the coalition for testing reform is fighting for greater accessibility for students with disabilities.

But the coalition is worried the state board of education will run out of time to make big changes by 2025. That’s when the contract expires for Pearson, the testing company that administers the reading and math tests for students in third to eighth grades.

Amid strong opposition last spring, the board walked back its idea to replace the April exam with three smaller tests spaced throughout the year, and has been quiet publicly since. Last week, a state testing review committee presented reform recommendations to the board, including shortening the spring test and finding ways to get scores back sooner.

But the recommendations are light on details, and the next steps will be more discussions and meetings.

Advocates for change are pressing for action as soon as possible.

“The time is now,” said Monique Redeaux-Smith, director of professional issues for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, one of the state’s two major teachers unions and part of the coalition. By mid-year 2025, the state will have either signed on with a new standardized test-maker or have created a new test itself.

If the board doesn’t move quickly, it might be too late to create a test that’s substantially different from the current one, Redeaux-Smith said.

And the tests aren’t going away. They’re required by federal law for school accountability purposes, and even harsh critics of tests say they’re one of the only ways to measure inequities between schools. And the stakes are heightened now. Test scores plummeted during the pandemic. In 2022, just 17.3% of third graders met grade level standards for English and Language Arts, down from nearly 40% in 2019.

Meanwhile, there’a push to make sure the state’s money is well spent. Illinois is slated to spend $28.4 million on the test this school year.

The state board’s reform attempt

Last spring the state board of education appeared poised to enact big changes to the IAR by the 2025 deadline. The state board started this process in 2021, prompted by concerns about learning loss caused by the pandemic and how long it took to get results back.

The board and its State Assessment Review Committee had teamed up with consultants from the Center for Assessment, a New Hampshire organization dedicated to improving standardized testing. Together, these groups surveyed a group that mostly included educators, though many said they didn’t fully understand the questions and didn’t respond.

Their recommendation was to replace the spring test with three smaller tests evenly spaced throughout the year. Results of these “interim assessments” would be returned quickly, measuring student progress as they learn, rather than an end-of-the-year assessment like the current IAR. This plan would have required approval from the U.S. Department of Education.

But advocates strongly objected, saying three tests a year, even shorter tests, would make test prep an even bigger focus of class time. Samay Gheewala, deputy director of the parents’ group Illinois Families for Public Schools, said focusing on reading, writing and math, the subjects on the tests, crowds out other disciplines. “Things like science are getting shoved out of the way as ‘specials,’ ” Gheewala said.

In response to these objections, state Superintendent Carmen Ayala announced the state was nixing the three-tests-per-year plan. At first, Ayala pressed on, saying it was advantageous to work on improvements sooner rather than later. “We can utilize a portion of the federal pandemic relief funding to improve our state assessment, and, as you know, these funds have an expiration date,” she said in March.

But the state board quickly reversed course. “We will not be pursuing any changes to the IAR at this time,” Ayala said at the ISBE monthly meeting in May. Meanwhile, Ayala in November announced plans to retire in February. A new superintendent has not been named.

What advocates want

The state is exploring options pushed by advocates, such as a quicker turnaround and score reports that are more useful for parents and educators. The state’s test review committee is also considering moving to adaptive tests, where students who make mistakes will be assigned easier questions and advanced students get increasingly difficult questions.

But the coalition is concerned the board is moving too slowly. It has more detailed plans ready for the board’s consideration.

For example, the score reports they want wouldn’t just report data — they would present suggestions for improving individual teachers’ teaching and individual students’ learning. This feels particularly urgent given the pandemic learning losses.

Paul Zavitkovsky, a member of the coalition pushing for test changes who teaches at the University of Illinois Chicago, says the current report is inscrutable to most teachers and parents. “For most people who don’t wade around in this stuff every day there’s no reason why people would really understand what those numbers mean,” he said.

Currently, students are given a numerical “scale score,” which fits into one of five categories, from “exceeds expectations” to “did not yet meet expectations.” Score reports also indicate whether a student performed “high,” “medium” or “low” in several subcategories, including vocabulary, written expression and mathematical reasoning.

Zavitkovsky says score reports should include sample test questions — examples of the types of questions the student likely struggled with based on their score. “That’s the kind of thing that parents and teachers can use,” he said. “Actual passages that kids have to read or problems they’re asked to do.”

Advocates also say they’re working with the state on developing adaptive design, but some want additional resources to ensure accurate results for students with disabilities.

Bev Johns of the Learning Disabilities Association of Illinois wants more school staff members trained in both testing and disability so they can meet one on one with special-needs students prior to testing. The goal is to have enough staff to request test materials and accommodations that match the needs of each student.

Pearson, the company that makes the IAR, provides accommodations 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 present questions to students with reading difficulties.

But Johns says some students need additional accommodations that test designers may not have anticipated. She remembers a student from her time as a special ed teacher who needed a human reader. After requesting the reader, Johns says, “I learned she got nervous with new people. So she was not going to do well [with] somebody that she didn’t know.” In the end, Johns had to request permission to make an audio recording of the test herself.

Unique requests, like having a familiar voice read the questions, have to be submitted and approved by the state board of education. Currently, many districts are short on special education staff, so ordering or requesting materials that suit the unique testing needs of each student would be a heavy lift.

Are reforms realistic?

The state’s testing review committee noted some potential downsides to key reforms, including returning results more quickly, improving score reporting and shortening the end-of-the-year test.

For example, the testing committee wrote in their report last week that speeding up the grading process might mean allowing machines to grade student-written “constructed response” answers, which could lead to “trust’ issues” about the accuracy of the scores. The constructed response questions are relatively new to state testing and are designed to assess higher-order thinking skills, which the state’s learning standards emphasize. Those responses might be harder for machines to evaluate fairly. The committee also noted the test couldn’t be shortened substantially without removing content “that assesses higher-order thinking.”

The committee also noted tests with adaptive design require more sets of questions and can be expensive to develop.

As for the coalition’s more specific requests, some would require even more state money for standardized testing. To truly meet the needs of test-takers with disabilities, for example, the state would have to help schools and districts hire more educators with expertise in both special education and standardized tests.

And testing companies are not accustomed to providing sample problems on score reports, according to Zavitkovsky, the UIC testing expert, and Brian Minsker, legislative affairs director at the Illinois Parent Teacher Association. Neither was aware of any company that currently makes them available for state standardized tests. The state’s testing committee also said releasing test questions would increase costs for the state.

Minsker believes the less-detailed reports used now are a leftover from No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration law that focused heavily on pushing schools to improve scores. The score reports were designed so schools and districts could analyze groups of students, rather than individuals. “The whole focus of how districts dealt with state assessments was to get kids over the [score threshold], not how assessment could inform or influence instruction.”

No Child Left Behind has since been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which no longer punishes low-performing schools. But to create new parent- and teacher-friendly score reports, Illinois would need to work with a company to develop something new.

Still, advocates hold out hope that the new test, when it arrives, will be significantly different from the current one.

“We have worked closely with [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 adaptive design, quick turnaround and useful reports for teachers, Redeux-Smith says, “Illinois could be an inspiration for the rest of the country.”

Char Daston covers education for WBEZ. Follow him @behindthissky and @WBEZeducation