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With Eye on Common Core, Illinois Raises State Test Cut Scores

The Illinois State Board of Education has voted to raise the cut scores on its state assessment in reading and math, the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), based on a proposal from state Superintendent Christopher Koch. ISAT is the state exam given to students in grades 3-8 in reading and math and in grades 4-7 for science. The stated motivation for the decision was to prepare students for the more rigorous exams aligned with the Common Core State Standards set to be administered beginning in 2014-15.

Koch made his proposal to raise the ISAT scoring levels for proficiency at the Jan. 23-24 state board of education meeting. (The beginning of his presentation is on page 113 of the very large meeting packet.) The change will raise the proficiency cut score by 13-17 points in reading, and 21-30 points in math. To put this in context, there are four scoring levels on the test, and students who score at levels 3 or 4 meet the proficiency standard. A level 3 score on the new scoring scale in grade 8 math, for example, would be anywhere from 267 to 309. A score below the new standard, in level 2, would be in the range of 234 to 266. So the scoring change seems significant.

Koch made the point that on current ISAT proficiency standards, based on 2012 results, 79 percent of all students in grades 3-8 are proficient in reading and 86 percent are proficient in math. If the new cut scores were applied to those same 2012 results, however, those percentages of proficient students would drop to 60 percent in reading and 59 percent in math.

As the state board notes on its website, about 20 percent of the ISAT's items on the 2013 tests were "written to the Common Core Standards and will be included as part of the scores/results fro the 2013 ISAT." So to the extent that Koch is arguing that the higher cut scores will better reflect the expectations on the 2014-15 common core tests (Illinois will use the PARCC consortium exams and is a "governing board" state), he arguably doesn't even need to wait until that academic year to make his case.

"With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, Illinois implemented standards that are higher, fewer, and deeper than the previous standards and establish year-by-year guidelines outlining the skills and content students must master on the path to college or technical programs to join the workforce," Koch wrote to the board.

A spokesman for the state board, Matthew Vanover, seemed to indicate to the Belleville News-Democrat before the vote that ISAT was not getting the job done in terms of indicating student readiness for life after K-12, at least compared with another test for high school juniors, the Prairie State Achievement Exam.

In the "Pros and Cons" section of his report on the proposed ISAT changes, Koch doesn't list any "cons" to raising the cut scores. Critics of such an approach bring up the idea that merely raising performance standards doesn't necessarily drive any changes that improve absolute student achievement. The example of Florida's decision to raise (and then lower, in the face of low scores and public criticism) its Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test cut score in 2012 has been used often, but is instructive here as well in terms of potential practical problems for Illinois.

(Last year, the Illinois state board stuck by a tougher cut score for its basic-skills test for teacher candidates that it had originally raised in 2010, despite pressure from Chicago-area education school deans and others to make the score less rigorous, as my colleague Stephen Sawchuk wrote about last June on his Teacher Beat blog.)

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