Education in Illinois is hovering at the edge of a precipice. Collectively, we can step over the cliff—or we can step back and regain some balance. There are a number of factors that have brought us to this point, each with serious and negative consequences if left unchecked.
The Premise of Testing
To begin, much rhetoric has emerged lamenting the poor test performance of our K-12 students, leading to criticisms of our schools, threats of state takeovers, and demands for change. These arguments typically begin, however, without consideration of the premise that such testing is appropriate in the first place.
Reports from some of the most prestigious educational research sources in the nation (including the American Educational Research Association, Dr. David Berliner of Arizona State University, Dr. Alfie Kohn of Boston, and the late Gerald W. Bracey) have shown over and over again that the testing premise is false. It is harmful to schools and misleading to our citizens and decision makers. It has been called into question by a growing number of groups, such as the Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA), which is comprised of a broad spectrum of 153 organizations, including the American Association of School Administrators, American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the Children’s Defense Fund and the NAACP.
Despite what research has revealed, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) continues to press for more and more testing. This insistence has effectively narrowed our schools’ curricula to cover only what the tests cover, omitting substantial content that is critical for the development of the well-educated, informed citizenry necessary in a democracy.
The emphasis on testing has also been imposed on higher education, particularly teacher education. Currently, teacher education students must pass three separate state tests before they can graduate and become licensed teachers. The first is the Basic Skills Test (BST), which tests knowledge one should gain through high school. Prior to last year, approximately 75 percent of all students statewide were passing the BST. Last year, the ISBE decided to change the pass scores (but not the test itself). The Coalition for Effective Teaching, which monitors BST results, reports that in the last quarter of 2010, just 23 percent of students taking the test passed. Broken down by ethnicities, the data are alarming: 27 percent of Caucasians, five percent of African Americans, nine percent of Latinos, and 20 percent of Asian students passed the test. Examining these scores, one might question whether the students taking the BST have suddenly become less intelligent.
A recent study released by the Illinois Education Research Council at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville compared ACT scores with BST pass rates and found that fewer than 50 percent of students who earned composite ACT scores of 24 passed the BST. Only when composite ACT scores met or exceeded 25 did more students pass the BST than fail. (To put this into context, ACT scores of 19 to 21 will get you into most universities in the state.) If one is to believe the ISBE, nearly half of the students who excelled on the ACT are not capable of passing the BST. In addition, the testing agency will share the scores, but refuses to share any information with respect to what students did correctly or incorrectly—even as the ISBE demands that colleges remediate their students. Higher education’s response has been to devote significant energies and resources developing test preparation seminars, sample tests and tutoring—but without any clear direction as to what should be targeted.
The results can also lead one to conclude that most of our state’s high schools are failing to adequately prepare students—a preposterous position to take, and an ironic indictment of the ISBE’s accountability to ensure that graduates of Illinois schools are properly prepared when students are now failing the very same test that most were passing just a year ago. One may reasonably conclude that either the ISBE was failing in its mission to ensure high school graduates possess the basic skills requisite for becoming qualified teachers (which we don’t believe is the case), or that it has now raised pass scores to an unreasonable level. The ISBE and other testing proponents have led the public to believe that tests like the BST are vetting quality candidates for teaching. Sadly, this is not the case. Yet it is successful in culling the ranks of future teachers as students choose alternative majors, stop attending school or leave the state.
Chasing Federal Dollars
The primary reason for the ISBE’s action is the effort to demonstrate that Illinois has educational standards that qualify it for federal Race to the Top funds. Illinois has repeatedly failed to qualify, yet continues to sacrifice the integrity of its educational institutions while grasping for funds that are unlikely to materialize.
In this misguided chase for federal dollars, the ISBE has also opened the state’s education institutions to dubious (if not malicious) “reviews” by political groups whose primary goal is to demonstrate that our institutions are failing, thereby establishing a basis upon which to call for increased centralized control. The most recent is the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a group that disregards professional research protocols, lacks virtually any controls, and bases its conclusions on the flimsiest of data. The group produces “grades” for institutions, most of which received Ds or Fs in the first cycle of review. This is so appalling that the majority of the state’s education institutions have now refused to participate with those groups’ data collection efforts beyond the first year.
Many of the state’s university/college education programs are accredited by national entities like the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). Accreditation is an exceptionally rigorous review, requiring several years to fully complete (replete with self-studies, external reviews and panel visits to campus, and redone every seven years), that examines virtually every aspect of the veracity and effectiveness of teacher education. Each content area (e.g. math, science, social studies, special education, etc.) undergoes an exhaustive and detailed review by separate professional organizations. For example, the National Science Teachers Association, the largest such organization in the world, scrutinizes teacher education science programs. To gain accreditation is a significant statement about the quality of a program. Yet the ISBE now maintains that because of results such as those recently derived from the BST, our university programs are failing to successfully complete their tasks. The ISBE has decided to virtually ignore national accreditations and mandated each education program undergo a complete revision and review within the next year. The sheer number of man-hours and resources to accomplish this is astounding, and necessitates that universities and colleges divert ever-shrinking funds to revise programs that have already successfully attained national accreditation for ISBE approval.
These actions by the ISBE are beginning to have an economic impact on our state. We have already seen very promising teacher candidates leave Illinois to attend college in other states without these onerous requirements. To the universities and colleges, this is a measurable loss of tuition income. It is a loss of intellectual capital that is unlikely to be recovered. In the not-too-distant future, this also means we will have fewer “qualified” individuals to fill the state’s teacher corps.
The actions taken by ISBE have little to do with education quality and everything to do with politically correct and often misguided thinking. The ISBE is directly at odds with the state’s higher education institutions (and K-12 schools). The all-too-palpable message is that our educational institutions are enemies to be subdued rather than participating partners in the educational enterprise. This sad state of affairs has political roots at its origin, and that is exactly where the solution exists. Citizens who are concerned with the state of affairs in Illinois education need to contact their legislators, express their concerns, and educate them. They are certainly not listening to the educators. iBi
Dr. Dean Cantù is a professor and chairperson of the Department of Teacher Education at Bradley University. Dr. Kevin D. Finson is also a professor in Bradley’s Department of Teacher Education.