State education officials say the current method of testing students isn't properly measuring their progress, but they're hoping that will change with a new set of internationally benchmarked learning standards in English and math.
The so-called "Common Core" standards have been adopted by Illinois and 47 other states in an attempt to better prepare students for higher education and beyond. Beginning with the 2014-15 school year, students statewide will begin taking new tests to assess how well they're grasping what they're being taught.
It's expected the new tests, administered by a 23-state consortium called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, will be given at least twice a year, unlike the current Illinois Standards Achievement Test, which is given annually to students in grades 3-8. Juniors in high school are required to take the Prairie State Achievement Examination.
More frequent testing -- which will be administered on computers -- will give teachers more timely information about how well their students are learning, or where they're struggling, said State Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch.
"The current system gives us a snapshot of how a student is doing at one point in time," Koch said. "As a state, we don't return to that student until the following year, when all the variables have changed again. The student is now facing new benchmarks and a new test."
Officials say the new standards are more rigorous than the old ones, adopted statewide in 1997. And so the tests that measure the Common Core's effectiveness will also be harder, requiring students to demonstrate how they reached an answer. No longer will there be multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank questions. And actual human beings will be grading some of the assessments.
"For our elementary teachers in the state, this is going to be a sea change. We're trying to prepare them for that because the standards have changed with the adoption of the Common Core as to what they should teach and when they teach it -- and how they teach it," Koch said. "Because now, we're going to be assessing not only their knowledge level. We're no longer going to be looking at just a bubble multiple choice test. We're going to be expecting those students to demonstrate the application of knowledge. And that requires a different type of teaching."
Local school districts, therefore, have begun adjusting their curriculums to reflect the increasing rigor.
'Breadth to depth'
In Schaumburg Elementary District 54, teachers in the past seven years have introduced more informational texts into their classrooms -- a major hallmark of the Common Core. About two-thirds of literature throughout the district is nonfiction, and a third is fiction, said Michelle Thompson, a district literacy instructional coach.
Teachers have also been telling their students to provide supporting evidence to answers on tests.
"It's a new way of thinking for them, but it's not a bad thing," said Thompson, who served on a state-level committee in 2010 that analyzed differences between the old state standards and the new Common Core. "We're getting them to think deeper."
On the high school level, a curriculum revision process has been under way since 2009 in Glenbard District 87 in preparation for the implementation of the Common Core standards.
Jeff Feucht, Glenbard's assistant superintendent for educational services, said the district is trying to shift its curricular focus from "breadth to depth."
Fewer and fewer English courses, for example, will focus on reading the classics, in exchange for more analysis of nonfiction works and informational texts. For formal essays and papers, there will be greater emphasis on supporting arguments and "writing with voice."
And Feucht says it's not entirely a bad thing if a U.S. history teacher has only enough time in a school year to get to World War II and not Vietnam.
"Traditionally we feel this pressure to cover everything," Feucht said. "Common Core says you have to prioritize."
Officials hope implementation of the K-12 Common Core standards will better align what they say are different standards for elementary and high school students. Koch said high school standards -- measured by the PSAE and ACT taken by high school juniors -- are more rigorous.
Overall ISAT composite scores for 2012 show 82 percent of students were meeting or exceeding reading standards in grades 3-8. But PSAE composite scores show 51 percent of 11th-graders are meeting or exceeding standards.
"The ACT currently provides a good indicator of college and career readiness. The ISAT does not. We have a disconnect in our state," Koch said.
Since much of the higher education community was at the table in the development of PARCC tests, it's likely many colleges will accept those scores in place of the ACT, some education experts say.
"The big news people aren't really hearing is there's basically two more ACT and PSAE (in 2013 and 2014)," Feucht said. "Then after that, we won't be giving those."
Between now, then
Before the new PARCC tests are implemented in 2014, state education officials are making grading scale adjustments to the existing ISAT that changes what is defined as "meets" and "exceeds."
It's clear the grading scale will be made tougher, but by how much is still unknown.
The goal, officials say, is to align the existing test data with new performance levels and give schools an idea of how their students would perform under the new testing system.
"We should be assessing to match instruction," Koch said. "We've implemented the Common Core. The assessments are changing as a result of that. And that's why the timing of this is the right time."