Illinois top educator wants to revamp state testing

She’s only been on the job for less than four months, but state education board superintendent Carmen Ayala already is moving toward overhauling the state’s controversial testing system.

The plan, Ayala told Chalkbeat in a conversation on Wednesday, is to replace the patchwork of state tests that students take from kindergarten through high school, and replace them with one coordinated type of measurement.

“The vision for state assessments is to have a pre-K-through-12 system that addresses literacy and math so we don’t have gaps in grades,” said Ayala, who previously was superintendent of west suburban Berwyn North School District 98. “Can we look at a child who entered in kindergarten, really look at their longitudinal journey, and tell where the success points and interventions were?”
Ayala has asked for a $3 million evaluation in the next school year of the various tests students take as part of the state assessment system.

Ayala said she’ll use the results to decide whether the current tests can be streamlined, or whether the state should develop new assessments. Illinois rolled out a new state test for third- to eighth-grade students this spring, similar to previous tests that the state dropped after moving away from the multi-state PARCC testing consortium last year.

Ayala envisions schools administering tests three times a year, and schools and families getting results immediately. She believes that this system would allow students to spend less time on testing. Any changes the state imposes would not affect school districts, like Chicago, that administer their own tests on top of state exams.

As the state prepares to end another school year with more than 1,000 teacher vacancies, another big-ticket item on Ayala’s to-do list is tackling Illinois’ dire teacher shortage. The legislature took up the issue in its last session. It agreed to abolish the basic skills test that advocates argued posed a challenge to would-be teachers of color, and to hike the minimum wage for teachers in Illinois from $10,000 to $40,000. Now those bills are headed to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk.

The state board can have an important role to play in addressing the teacher shortage, Ayala said, but needs to be realistic about what can be done immediately. In the long term, the plan will be to build up the teacher pipeline. Short-term, the board can change rules to make it easier for retired teachers to return to the classroom and help substitutes get teaching certificates.

Ayala said that overall, she would like to improve education for the students facing the biggest challenges. “There is a lot of talent and a lot of creativity in our children, and every single child should be given the opportunity to strengthen those skills.”