Illinois wants to delay decision on spring testing, keep fall kindergarten assessment

We needed to help students see that the path to college was still a reality. We needed hope. At MESA, that hope came in the unlikely form of the CLEP exams,” Principal Pagee Cheung writes.
Testing in Progress sign on door at Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School, an elementary school in Indianapolis, Indiana. —April, 2019— Photo by Alan Petersime/Chalkbeat (Alan Petersime/Chalkbeat)

Illinois plans to keep its fall kindergarten assessment and delay a decision on statewide spring testing until after the presidential election in November, the state education department said Thursday. 

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration has said that it is unlikely to issue waivers to allow states to skirt spring testing in 2021. Testing was waived last year, but Education Secretary Betsy DeVos  warned state leaders in a recent letter that they “should not anticipate such waivers being granted again.”

However, could change if former Vice President Joe Biden is elected. 

Biden’s campaign does not appear to have commented on this year’s waivers, but has suggested that, if elected president, he would move away from standardized testing. Notably, though, some top congressional Democrats have said they support DeVos’ decision to stay the course on spring 2021 assessments.

During the state board meeting on Thursday, Illinois state school board members acknowledged discomfort with the idea of testing children whose learning was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Previously, the state superintendent had said the state would seek a waiver if it could. 

“We’re not trying to duck accountability. We are not trying to duck assessments but there is absolutely, positively nothing to be gained from this spring’s assessment,” said David Lett, a former teacher, principal, and superintendent who serves on the board.

If school districts opt to remain remote through the spring semester — or if another spike in coronavirus cases means a broader shift toward virtual learning — board members expressed concern that the state will lack the funding needed to ensure that testing is accessible and equitable for all students,especially those who might not have reliable internet access at home. 

But waving assessments also pokes holes in the state accountability system and efforts to boost achievement for low-income children, students with disabilities, and other disadvantaged groups. “We’re also looking at the problem that it will pose as it relates to being able to compare the data with any of the previous year’s data,” said Shawn Clayton, the state’s director of assessments. 

The board’s vice chair, Donna Leak, suggested the state consider alternatives to tests.

“I understand the perspective that there is a concern that children who are low-income, minority children may not get assessed or there may not be data. I concur that I think there has to be a better, a different way for us to collect data and make sure that our children are showing growth this year outside of this required assessment,” said Leak, a superintendent for Community Consolidated Schools District 168 in Chicago’s south suburbs. 

At the same time, Illinois signaled it likely will move ahead with a kindergarten assessment tool known as KIDS that has become a key piece of evidence in the argument for investing more in early learning across the state. The state recommended Thursday that the window for testing be extended to 40 days after a school building has reopened. Principals and other educators on an advisory committee will next consider the issue. 

The KIDS assessment is not a test, per se, and it’s not required by federal law. It is a 14-point evaluation of kindergarten readiness based on teacher observations of how children interact in the classroom and perform basic tasks, such as sorting buttons.

With roughly two-thirds of the state’s two million school children starting the year remotely, teachers have said it will be hard to complete the observations virtually and within the required time frame. However, a delay could make it difficult to compare data on skills at the beginning of the school year. 

The result of years of lobbying and pressure from the early education advocates, Illinois debuted the new tool to assess kindergarten readiness statewide in the fall of 2017, with the first data publicly available the following summer. The data initially revealed that 3 out of 4 Illinois children showed up for kindergarten unprepared; data released in August show some improvement, with 29% of children showing up ready in three core areas in the fall of 2019 compared to 26% the year prior. 

Speaking Thursday, the state’s chief educator, Carmen Ayala, acknowledged the challenge of rulemaking amid a pandemic, when some schools are juggling in-person learning and cadres of virtual teaching, while other schools are open, and still others are completely remote. 

That has been a challenge throughout this entire pandemic,” Ayala said. “We are trying to follow timelines, and not get ahead of ourselves before the school board can provide feedback. Our schools need information as soon as possible.” 

More broadly, the Illinois state school board sets the standards for testing across the state, though some districts, such as Chicago, also administer their own local assessments. Tests come with high stakes for students and schools: On the student level, results can be used for selective enrollment or specialty school admissions or college admissions. Schools use test scores to evaluate teachers, and campuses receive quality ratings and get flagged for improvement plans based on the data. State testing also is tied to millions in federal grants.

Research presents a complicated picture on the value of testing, with supporters arguing that it is essential to document inequities and hold schools accountable for results. Anti-testing advocates say that too much classroom time is eaten up by tests and test preparation and that the focus on testing is damaging to children and educators

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