SPRINGFIELD -- After a two-year reprieve, Illinois high school juniors will be tested on their writing skills again next spring during state standardized tests.
Yet lawmakers did not allot an extra $2.5 million to pay for the exams across the state, raising hackles among critics of the legislative budget process after Democrats celebrated not having to cut education funding for the first time in four years.
State education officials say they now are hunting for a way to pay for the tests, possibly by seeking an extra appropriation from lawmakers.
Advocates of restoring the writing test say the move is in anticipation of major state education reforms that stress critical thinking more heavily. Educators fear that some Illinois schools dropped an emphasis on writing skills when the yearly assessments were halted in 2011.
The move reflects a "concern that writing was not being taken as seriously as it should be," said state Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Democrat who helped negotiate the education budget. "This is determined to be something that has a strong impact on student performance in the classroom -- a predictor of success."
But Republican lawmakers say it illustrates a problem with the state's approach to budgeting, and how Democrats seek to spend money the state doesn't have. In keeping education funding even this year, lawmakers took advantage of a so-called "April Surprise," a windfall of one-time tax revenues. But some critics say the Democrats went too far in adding back programs the state can't afford.
"That's the challenge we have when we talk about new revenue," said state Rep. Bob Pritchard, a Republican on the House education committee who voted against the state schools budget. "We find the Legislature wants to spend that and more. We find creative ways to say we have a balanced budget and (then) incur unpaid bills."
Pritchard contended it's basic math, not writing, that lawmakers need to help schools with.
Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said officials do not know where they will get the money at this point, but they say local districts won't be left holding the bag. She said one possibility is returning to the Legislature to ask for a supplemental appropriation.
"We're still exploring options," Fergus said.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed the writing assessment requirement into law last week as part of the state's $35 billion budget. But in his budget proposal in March, the governor originally called for $400 million in cuts to elementary, middle and higher education. He blamed the dire scenario on the state's nearly $100 billion pension funding crisis, which drains money from other programs.
But thanks to more than $1.2 billion in increased tax revenue, lawmakers approved an education budget where spending remained flat compared to last year. It was welcome news for schools, which have suffered through $800 million in education cuts since 2009, Fergus said.
However, the new budget provides the same $27 million for student assessment tests while adding the extra writing-exam requirement, Fergus said. The 30-minute essay test will be included as part of the two-day Prairie State Achievement Exam, which is held in late April. Composed of the ACT test and a job skills test called the WorkKeys assessment, the exam is used for both college entrance and to determine whether students are meeting federal education benchmarks.
Senate Democrats put the writing exam requirement back in the budget after lobbying from educators. Within a year, they noted, writing skills will be required more than ever as the state moves to adopt the federally initiated Common Core standards, a more rigorous assessment to be used in the 2014 school year by Illinois and 44 other states. Last year, only 32 percent of Illinois high schools met federal education law benchmarks.
Sharon Washington of the California-based National Writing Project, a federally funded program that stresses the teaching of writing skills, said that as cash-strapped states prepare for the upcoming change, they "would rather be on the record (saying) that they're pro-writing ... even if they don't have the resources currently to reinstate high-quality, direct assessment of student writing."
Illinois' writing exam -- which is not required under federal education law -- was eliminated in 2011 to save money. Because student essays are read by two separate judges, the test is much more expensive to conduct than other portions of the test, which are scored by machines.
No statewide records track which schools formally cut back on writing. But Barbara Kato, director of the Chicago Area Writing Project, another advocacy group, said some Illinois administrators are anxious about a drop-off in writing skills in high schools, partly because college-level advanced placement exams require writing.
"Last week I got four calls from high school principals about teaching writing," Kato said. "They are nervous about the Common Core."
That hasn't proven to be the case everywhere. Danielle Barter, principal at Johnston City High School in southern Illinois and a 23-year veteran English teacher, said her school has made a point of not losing its writing focus.
"Kids still needed to write," she said.
As far as the funding, Kotowski said he believes the state board can manage to deliver the writing tests within the $27 million that lawmakers allotted for all assessments.
"They have several months to prove that they can manage within that number," Kotowski said. "If it's a challenge ... we'll find out from them."
State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat and chief proponent of state education reforms, said she was "pleased that we agreed to spend $2.5 million as a new starting point."
She described the move as a "proactive measure that will help more Illinois students be college ready."