How best to assess COVID-19 learning loss? Illinois faces conundrum over standardized test switch

Concerned that the state’s existing standardized test won’t adequately capture pandemic losses and eager to streamline the number of tests that students take, Illinois wants to sign a new contract for a state test before the previous assessment contract is up.

Now a vote to make that change has been delayed, putting the state school board’s plans on pause and raising questions about how to catch pandemic-related learning loss. 

The Illinois Board of Education was set to vote next Wednesday on a request for proposals for a $277 million contract for a new state assessment system. The initial plan for a new system would gradually replace the Illinois Assessment of Readiness exam in some districts with an interim exam that will test third to eighth graders three times a year. The board planned to award the contract in late summer or early fall for an initial five years.

Some educators and parents are demanding the state seek input from school administrators, teachers, and families before bringing the matter back up for a vote. But the decision to table a June vote creates a conundrum since the board typically does not meet in July and is not scheduled to return until August, when students return to classes. 

Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said he is happy to see the state board of education delay the vote because the proposal needs more work.

The state board needs to talk to teachers, parents, students, principals, and administrators, said Montgomery. “They did not really do that in any kind of real significant way, because I think they’re going to get a very different message.”

Elaine Allensworth, an education researcher at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research, said that while she understands the state wanting to move away from the Illinois Assessment of Readiness test, research doesn’t show that interim assessments are a better option.

“Giving standardized assessments three times a year or even more, there’s so much error,” said Allensworth. “Students can have good days and bad days.” 

The tests “can’t give you precise information on students’ skills in any given area,” said Allensworth. “They just give an overall assessment of students’ skills in that subject area.” 

However, Allensworth says while there are limitations to assessment, schools can receive some information on how students are improving if they focus on gains instead of averages. 

“If we look at the schools where students show stronger gains, students who go to the schools actually have better long-term outcomes,” she said. 

The state’s initial plan included an optional test for early learners in kindergarten to second grade. School districts would be able to customize the assessment based on their curriculum. Unlike data from the current exam that is reported back to school districts in the fall, after students have passed to the next grade, the data will be reported back within 30 days. Since the state still has a contract with the developers of the Illinois Assessment of Readiness assessment until 2025, 20 percent of the state’s student population might have to take both exams during the 2022-2025 school years. 

State schools chief Carmen Ayala said during the May board meeting that the intent of changing the state’s system was to eliminate the number of exams students have to take throughout the school year. 

“I’ll be truthful,” said Ayala, a former district superintendent. “I was one of those district superintendents that was screaming about the amount of assessments that were taking place in schools.” 

School administrators and teachers have long raised concerns over the use of the Illinois Assessment of Readiness exam. While federal law requires that states test students in reading or language arts and math annually in grades 3-8, school leaders want data that is useful. 

School districts such as Chicago and Carbondale Elementary School District 95 use interim tests throughout the school year. 

Teachers want testing that will align with curriculum and improve teaching, said Montgomery, who fears a high-stakes interim test will lead to more test preparation. 

“Instruction will come to a grinding halt and there’ll be test prep,” he said. “Kids will be told this is really important so they’ll be stressed out. It interferes with actual teaching and learning.”

This article was originally posted on How best to assess COVID-19 learning loss? Illinois faces conundrum over standardized test switch

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