Daily Herald opinion: The elusive, but necessary, goal of measuring learning
Illinois, and the nation really, has been searching for no less than half a century for an effective means of testing how well our teachers and our schools are doing. We've tried numerous approaches. Just in the past decade we've shuffled through acronyms ranging from NCLB (No Child Left Behind) to PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and beyond.
All are well-meaning efforts, if all also imperfect. It's only sensible to find out whether our schools are successful and our children are learning what they need to. The Illinois State Board of Education is wise to keep trying.
But there are limits to the endeavor, and those have come into sharp focus in recent months as the board has sought to reconstruct, again, the procedures for testing students to see how much they're learning.
Now, the ISBE has proposed a three-test regimen to replace the current single standardized test. Not without reason, teachers are skeptical, and last week representatives of the Illinois Federation of Teachers union called for renewed efforts to reduce the amount of time allotted to standardized testing.
The ISBE's efforts are grounded in good intentions. As state schools Superintendent Carmen Ayala told our Madhu Krishnamurthy in 2019, the current system cuts too far into students' instruction time and provides results too late to be of value.
"Wouldn't it be nice if we had a state assessment K-12 that could be given three times a year ... so it would be less testing time?" she said at the time. "It would be given in a way that results were immediately (available)."
But so far, things have not worked out that way. Last month, the board received results of a survey that largely corroborated Ayala's concerns, but then offered more complaints than solutions.
"There is high agreement about the need to improve state assessment, but less consensus about what improvement consists of," the report stated.
IFT representatives left no doubt they believe less time should be devoted to measuring students' learning, and they have a valid point. Without dispute, every hour devoted to preparing students for a test -- especially if the preparation is test focused rather than learning focused -- is time taken away from actual instruction.
Unfortunately, though, none of the stakeholders has yet produced an option that both effectively measures student learning and effectively balances the testing with classroom instruction time. Struggling against a storm of criticism, the best the state school board can muster, which is not nothing, is a promise to keep trying.
Regulators have few options, and hopefully somewhere in the process, working with teachers and other stakeholders, they will come up with a system that does a better job of measuring learning without inhibiting it. Unquestionably, they should keep striving for a system that minimizes the time spent testing or preparing for tests. But that doesn't mean giving up on testing altogether.
Without some objective evaluation, we have no way of knowing whether students are being adequately prepared for the demands of adulthood.
Somewhere, there is a balance point that produces feedback in time for teachers to use it to advance learning while not stealing valuable instruction time from students. Just because the ISBE has not found that point yet by no means suggests it should stop looking.