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Illinois State Board of Education considers big changes to standardized testing

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The federal government mandates students in 3rd through 8th grades take these high-stakes tests every spring.

Even last year, when many students were just returning to the classroom after COVID-19 forced them to learn at home for a year. Students came back just in time to take the Illinois Assessment of Readiness or IAR. Other schools let students take it at home or even wait until this past fall. If you think that sounds pretty non-standard for “standardized” tests -- you’re right.

It was very frustrating for many students, teachers and administrators like Sycamore superintendent Steve Wilder.

“We'd spent all this time either in hybrid or remote," he said, "and then we're going to turn around and give a state assessment to kids that have been out of school or disrupted for so long, but it was a requirement from the Department of Education.”

That once a year requirement could be changing. The Illinois State Board of Education is considering a switch from once-a-year testing to three-times-a-year testing, and an option to test students as young as Kindergarten.

Many parents and educators oppose the proposed plan and say they haven’t had enough input on the process. Critics of expanding to three tests say that it’ll increase the amount of time teachers have to devote to test prep. They say it’ll put undue stress on students and, simply, that standardized tests aren’t even a good barometer of student success to begin with.

Higher education agrees with them when it comes to standardized tests like the ACT and SAT. Many Illinois universities don’t look at them at all anymore when it comes to admissions or scholarships.

Wilder says moving to three tests could provide valuable information for educators if they get results quickly. One of his major frustrations with the test now is that schools don’t see data until the next year when students have already moved on to the next grade.

“It usually takes a while to get the numbers back. So you really can't use it to inform how you're instructing students in the short term,” said Wilder.

If teachers can’t use the results to help their students in real time, what’s the point? Wilder says they’re required by the federal government to give a sense of school accountability.

“Are schools really teaching students and what schools are performing better than others?” he said. “I'm not sure the state's state assessment is really a good measure of that, but there's so many other ways to assess how students are performing.”

That can be through anything from everyday classwork and group projects to other exams schools give students outside of the state-mandated ones.

A majority of Illinois schools purchase assessments on their own and give them out a few times a year, similar to the proposed plans. Although, some educators aren’t certain those tests help academic growth.

For many though, it’s all just too much testing. That includes for teachers who are often assessed themselves by their district based on how well their students perform on standardized tests.

“It's really dangerous to use that to really try to measure an individual teacher's effectiveness," Wilder said. "So many other variables that play into that.”

Wilder has been a teacher, principal and superintendent in his career. He says for educators and administrators there is still worthwhile data to be gleaned from these tests.

For example, he likes to look at what percentage of students meet state standards, then drill down to specific grade levels and even specific classrooms and students. But, because there are so many local assessments throughout the year, typically the data is just confirming what teachers already know.

One big drawback Wilder sees in switching to another state test is long-term data.

“That's probably been one of my biggest frustrations," he said. "Every time you feel like you're getting this longitudinal data where, from a district level perspective, you can track students over 5, 10, 13 years -- if they start in kindergarten and work their way through your entire district -- you can't do that. It seems like it changes every couple of years.”

It could be changing again, but the Illinois State Board of Education hasn’t presented a timeline for when that might happen. In the meantime, this month young students are – once again -- sitting down to take their stress-inducing, federally mandated exams.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.