Like it or not, students throughout most McHenry County school districts got a taste this week of new assessments tied to the controversial Common Core standards.
Fifteen districts, from Crystal Lake District 47 to Riley District 18, agreed to participate in practice tests this spring to help Illinois and 18 other states work out the kinks in the new standardized tests before states implement the Common Core next school year.
Although districts will never see the testing results, administrators from Woodstock-based District 200 and Carpentersville-based District 300 said they wanted to do the test-run to better gauge how they are adjusting their curriculum to the new standards.
“Yes, we are not going to get the data back, but what we are learning in the last couple of days about our alignment to the new standards and what we need to do for the new assessments has been worthwhile,” said George Oslovich, District 200 assistant superintendent for middle and high schools.
Woodstock students from 10 classrooms spanning grades 3-11 took practice performance-based exams this week. Participating districts will conduct end-of-the year assessments akin to current Illinois standardized tests in May.
Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have adopted the new Common Core state standards since 2010.
Illinois is working with 18 other states – in a group called the “Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers” – to develop new standardized tests in English and math tied to the standards.
Other area districts that elected not to participate were concerned about overtesting students, while critics like U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Winfield, have urged Illinois to delay the much-anticipated education transformation.
Chicago-based Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank, ridiculed the practice tests as a waste of time. The think tank has been a vocal critic of the Common Core, arguing that unaccountable bureaucrats are leading the coalition Illinois joined for developing the new assessments.
Heartland researchers agreed with Hultgren, who called for a delay this week during an event in Johnsburg.
“It’s about forcing children to spend hours and days losing instruction time they deserve to serve as unpaid, nonvoluntary guinea pigs for tests that will offer them, their teachers, parents and communities no useful information – no information at all,” said Joy Pullmann, Heartland education research fellow.
Officials from Huntley District 158 and Crystal Lake District 155 said they didn’t want to take instructional time away from students, who already have to complete the current standardized tests. High school students, too, will soon have final exams and Advanced Placement tests, as the school year enters the final stretch.
The other districts that didn’t participate were McHenry District 156 and Richmond-Burton District 157.
“We elected not to participate primarily because of the loss of instructional time that this would have caused for our students and teachers,” said District 155 spokesperson Jeff Puma, adding that students will not see the results of the practice tests and how they improved.
All districts in Illinois will start using those new assessments for real next year, but the districts that have caught an early glimpse say students are being challenged to use their critical-thinking skills more than ever before.
The current statewide assessments, containing multiple choice and other questions, gave districts feedback on whether students could perform specific skills, Oslovich said. The new assessments go beyond and ask students to apply the information to different areas.
Oslovich said the new English tests ask students to read certain passages and have them recall the important information conveyed. They then are required to compare the information, analyze it and write a response, based on a prompt.
“The ISAT test assessed what it was designed to assess – are kids able to do the skill,” Oslovich said. “What this assessment will do is not only tell us: Can kids do the skill? But it will let us know better: Can they apply this skill?”
Ben Churchill, assistant superintendent for high school teaching and learning at District 300, said the tests students are taking this week are quite different from the current standardized ones taken at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
“The new [English] assessments focus on writing effectively when analyzing texts, and the math assessments focus on applying skills and concepts to multi-step problems requiring abstract reasoning,” he said.