021514-dec-loc-steamart

Fourth-grader Jamarius Walker performs a test run while creating a hot chocolate machine with a list of materials during STEAM night for families at Enterprise School.

Answer this test question: If Student A takes the SAT and is found to meet college-ready standards, could Student A also be considered non-proficient according to state standards?

Correct answer: If Student A attends school in Illinois, then yes.

Sound strange?

It is, and the reasoning behind the logic is about as confusing as an SAT question on converting radians to arcseconds. Parents and taxpayers are left to untangle whether schools are performing at the highest level.

This is a pertinent topic as the state Department of Education released annual performance data for schools on Tuesday. The Illinois Report Card is an obnoxiously complex group of statistics looking at exam scores, teacher evaluations, enrollment, poverty trends and district finance metrics.

Trust us when we say “complex.” Even in the world of dense government reports, this one is a doozy. Making heads or tails of the numbers on state’s “eReport Card Public Site” requires, well, a high score on the SAT. There’s a 12-page .pdf for each school, with a blizzard of percentages, charts and acronyms (PARCC, DLM, PLD, ELA, for example) – so much data, in fact, it’s hard to grasp how it all impacts our children’s education.

Into this comes the SAT factor.

The state is using the college entrance exam to assess whether juniors – as well as their schools – are hitting federally mandated academic standards for math, reading and writing.

But here’s where it gets (more) confusing. The state has a higher score standard than the one used by the SAT. Hence it’s possible to be deficient according to the state and concurrently ready according to the SAT.

That may seem like a small issue, but it sure is confusing.

"This discrepancy is going to be very difficult for us to explain to our parents, teachers and especially our students. How can a student be simultaneously college-ready and not have made the cut?" Kevin O'Mara, of the High School District Organization of Illinois, told the Associated Press.

A. Rae Clementz, who oversees assessment and accountability for the state board, also told the A.P. that different exams are used for different purposes. For example, for years the Prairie State exam given to 11th graders included the ACT, which was one factor in determining if Illinois standards were being met.

All of this highlights the extraordinary pressure school districts and state education officials are under to comply with federal benchmarks. We have tremendous respect for our education leaders. Theirs is a difficult job made even more difficult by a tricky balancing act – we want high standards and we want districts held accountable, but there are obvious concerns about students having to endure assessment after assessment, one of the key flaws in the No Child Left Behind Act from years ago.

More troubling, though, is that result of all the testing is simply too cumbersome for the average person to analyze. Parents, taxpayers and community members should get a clear picture and not have to wade through the equivalent of a company’s Form 10-K to understand student achievement.

To its credit, the state Board of Education has a website, illinoisreportcard.com, with slightly fewer acronyms and more visuals, although it wasn’t until Friday that the portal had been updated with the new data.  

More efforts should be made to make this data more relevant to those who need the information the most. 

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