The annual Illinois school report cards are out, and they don't bring very good news.

Either today's students are underachieving or today's standardized tests are not up to par, depending on whom you believe. In both cases, it should be cause for some concern and a mandate for change.

It cannot be understated that there should be a sense of urgency in working to strengthen the academic achievement of the state's children -- both for the good of society and for our long-term economy. We have an obligation to the next generation to prepare them well.

And that's why it's disappointing to see declines or no improvement throughout the state and right here in the suburbs on the standardized test known as PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

As Daily Herald staff writer Madhu Krishnamurthy reported Tuesday and we followed up with more localized reports today, roughly two-thirds of Illinois students are not meeting expectations. Closer to home, of 540 suburban schools, 309 saw declines in the number of students meeting and exceeding proficiency and 11 remained flat.

That's just not good enough. And neither is the excuse that the tests don't matter or don't provide good data.

That said, it's likely the standardized tests could be improved and that should always be the goal. And it's also a good thing to look at more than just the test scores to gauge whether a school or district is doing the job it should be doing.

That's why next year, in addition to PARCC and the SAT college entrance exam, an expanded accountability system will be in place.

We agree with efforts like those at Northwest Suburban High School District 214, which prepares its students for life after high school graduation through partnerships that give students college credit, industry credentials and access to apprenticeships and internships.

"We believe in a multimetric approach in our district," Superintendent David Schuler said. "I'm much more concerned with how successful our students are after graduation than how many of our students graduate."

But that doesn't mean standardized tests should be eliminated or diminished in importance. Just as students are expected to show proficiency in class by passing tests, the same should be true for the school, district and state as a whole. As the state education superintendent, Tony Smith, said, the focus in the future will be on "who is doing well so we can learn."

Continuous learning is a concept all educators should embrace.