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NCLB Forces Illinois to Move Up Testing Date

High school juniors will take the state achievement exam nearly two months earlier next year, a switch Illinois education officials say is necessary to meet the demands of the No Child Left Behind law.

Illinois State Board of Education officials said Monday that the private contractor needs more time to score and analyze the exam if they are to avoid last year's debacle of delayed test results and error-riddled data. The results were so late that schools did not know they had run afoul of federal guidelines until well into the school year.

"We want schools to know where they stand before the start of the school year," said board spokeswoman Karen Craven. "The only way to do that is to give the test at an earlier date."

But the decision to rush the exam is not sitting well with some local educators, who complain that an earlier test date will push down test scores and seriously erode confidence in the state's already controversial testing program.

"We will lose eight weeks of instruction time and that is no small matter," said Attila Weninger, director of curriculum for Lyons Township High School District 204. "How can the state say this test is based on 11 years of learning and then go and discount 20 percent of a school year? This will have a major negative effect on test scores."

Illinois juniors typically take the two-day Prairie State Achievement Exam at the end of April. The mandatory test consists of the ACT college entrance exam in English, math, reading and science, and state-developed tests in writing, science and social science.

Next year, 11th graders will take the exam March 2-3. Elementary school students will see their test date moved up by three weeks, to March 7.

Craven said pushing up the test dates would allow the state to get preliminary results to districts by June 15 next year. Schools would then have 45 days to make corrections. The state could have final results to schools by mid-August, she said.

But a group of school officials in 30 districts in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and Will Counties argue that speedy test results should not trump academic considerations.

In a letter to state Supt. of Education Robert Schiller, the group said analysis from one of their districts showed that ACT scores rose dramatically after students were exposed to an additional year of instruction. Based on that research, the group concluded that moving the ACT back two months would result in a test score decline of 0.4 to 0.5 points.

"There's clear evidence that giving the test earlier will harm our students," said Weninger.

ACT officials said there is no evidence to support such an assertion.

"The test is not so sensitive that it would pick up the difference of an eight-week test date change," said Jon Erickson, ACT's vice president of education services. "It's a long-range test of skills, and eight weeks would probably not make any difference in the results."

Lynne Curry, director of planning and performance for the state board, said the agency consulted other researchers who agreed that a two-month shift in testing dates would not affect test scores. Curry also pointed out that the state pushed back the elementary test date from February until April several years ago, with a negligible change in test scores.

"But the superintendent has said that he is willing to consider a one-time [statistical] adjustment if there is a dramatic decline in scores," Curry said.

Illinois is not the only state struggling under the requirements of the federal law, which increases the amount of data states must collect. Some states, including Illinois, are still trying to sort out last year's mistakes.

Under the law, states must gather student achievement and test participation rates by ethnic group, income level, special-education status and English language proficiency. They also must collect data on whether teachers are fully licensed, among other requirements. The federal government uses the data to determine which schools should be sanctioned, including which ones must allow students to transfer out.

Last year, Illinois could not produce a list of failing schools until October. Even then, the data contained thousands of errors, and the state allowed schools to submit corrections. More than 900 did so by the Monday deadline, and the state expects to finalize the results within a month.

David Griffith, spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education, said at least 10 states have moved up the testing dates.

"States have found themselves in a real balancing act, trying to get test results back in time but still allowing schools as much time as possible to prepare kids for the test," Griffith said. "We are hearing a lot of grumbling because most states set up their testing schedules long before No Child Left Behind, and they based those schedules on when they thought kids would be ready for the test."

— Stephanie Banchero
State tests to be moved up in 2005
Chicago Tribune


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