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posted: 10/24/2015 2:00 PM

Writing about report cards ain't exactly academic

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It's one of the most complex and comprehensive tasks we take on at this newspaper each year.

The Illinois State Report Card -- a massive data dump of student standardized test scores, a dizzying array of demographics, teacher/administrator salaries and other information for every public school in the state -- is such a humongous project that the info usually is provided by the state in early October and embargoed until the end of the month.

That gives us several weeks to analyze the numbers, write stories for the day the embargo ends, but also determine what longer-term, more analytical pieces we can do. This process takes up until the holidays.

But that preparation window has narrowed dramatically. The numbers arrived Friday, giving us exactly a week to prepare the first batch of stories. That's not all. This will be the second of what's likely to be three releases of info. Last month, we were given statewide totals on the new standardized test, but nothing from individual schools or districts. The Friday data included just demographics. The state is finishing up the new test, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. It replaced other tests with equally bewildering acronyms.

The news on the PARCC test last month was not particularly good. Partial results (online test-takers only) showed roughly 70 percent of Illinois students weren't meeting expectations in mathematics and English literacy. This test is one used by 11 states, and it's a response to the federally mandated, and controversial, Common Core standards, which replace the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, which basically had standards no one could meet.

PARCC, too, has its detractors. Teachers and administrators complain the new test, which takes longer to administer, takes away more days of classroom learning. State academics and others caution not to read too much into the poor showing, that the more rigorous test is providing "a new baseline" -- a 21st Century means to measure whether kids are on track to be ready for college or a career.

Still, when the initial results came out last month, one local administrator called the test an "academic autopsy" on students; another said the data were "completely useless." Some said they'll rely on the more traditional tests, principally the ACT, to gauge how their students are doing. Oh, and some colleges are moving away from using standardized testing as a factor in admissions.

So there you have it. Against the backdrop of an unpopular, time-consuming test that may or may not have some bearing on a student's college or career readiness, we wait for the results. Did I mention this is a challenge?

Well, we have the Daily Herald Report Card Task Force at the ready. I think it's worth mentioning their names: Data Journalism Editor Tim Broderick, who performs the gargantuan task of organizing the data, preparing the numerous accompanying charts and readying his incredibly slick online interactive Report Card Checker; and reporters Madhu Krishnamurthy, Russell Lissau, Susan Sarkauskas, Melissa Silverberg and Marie Wilson.

They face a big challenge, but their efforts last year netted best school coverage honors from the Illinois Press Association: "The Daily Herald team hits the sweet spots of good writing, depth and clarity of coverage, enterprise and policy and community connections."

jdavis@dailyherald.com

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