By Diane Rado
Illinois is ditching the controversial state PARCC exam for high school students, instead giving 11th-graders a state-paid SAT college entrance exam next spring.
The announcement from the Illinois State Board of Education on Monday comes after only two administrations of PARCC, in the spring of 2015 and 2016, following dismal test scores and thousands of students skipping the exams.
Still, third- through eighth-graders will continue taking the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers in reading and math, exams designed to prepare students for college and work. The state tests have drawn opposition from families who questioned the amount of testing at school -- part of a national movement that has prompted some states to stop using the PARCC exams, which are based on Common Core standards.
At the high school level, the PARCC exams took away from key instruction time, school administrators said, as tests piled up in the spring, including Advanced Placement exams for honors-level students and a college entrance exam in many districts.
Against that backdrop, some students didn't seem to take PARCC seriously.
"There was no element of skin in the game for the kids -- they didn't know why they had to take the exam," said Argo Community High School District 217 Superintendent Kevin O'Mara, president of the High School District Organization of Illinois.
"It threw off our whole spring calendar."
For many years in the past, the state gave a free and popular ACT college entrance exam to roughly 140,000 high school juniors. ACT's contract expired, and there was no state-paid college entrance exam for students in spring 2016, although some districts paid for it on their own. ISBE chose this past school year to switch to the SAT, which O'Mara said is expected to be to given in April 2017.
The recently revamped SAT includes reading, math, and writing and language tests, as well as an optional essay. The state has paid for juniors to take a separate writing test in the past, while taking the ACT, and the state expects to do so again in the SAT spring testing.
"District and school administrators overwhelmingly agree with ISBE that every high school junior should have access to a college entrance exam, a policy that promotes equity and access and that provides each and every student with greater opportunities in higher education," state Superintendent of Education Tony Smith said in a written statement.
Giving the SAT only to juniors also will make for a simpler process during the testing season. In the past, districts could pick which PARCC exams to administer in high school, such as ninth-grade-level English language arts and algebra I, or 11th-grade-level English and algebra II. Students taking the tests could be in different grades, as long as they were in specific courses that would coincide with the PARCC exams.
But that approach left some kids off the testing roster for a variety of reasons, according to a Tribune review of testing data and student enrollment earlier this year. Federal law requires that students be tested in reading and math at least once in high school.
Federal law also requires that students take a science exam at least once in high school. Illinois' new science exam is not connected to PARCC and will continue be given to high school students, administrators said.
Some school officials and education reform groups got word of the elimination of PARCC in a conference call Monday with the state board of education.
Roger Eddy, head of the Illinois Association of School Boards, was on the call and supports the move.
"I think it's important that if we're looking at assessments, we should eliminate duplication," Eddy said. "We assess and assess and assess, and you've got to remember that sometimes we have to teach kids."
In addition, the SAT is meaningful because students can use their scores to get into college, Eddy said.
"We didn't get that far with PARCC," he added, meaning that PARCC exams were not used for college admissions purposes.
The situation over high school testing has been simmering for many months, with high school administrators pressing the state to reconsider the state testing roster for high school students and lawmakers pursuing ways to make sure kids could continue to take a state-paid college entrance exam.
An email went out to district superintendents Monday afternoon, from Superintendent Smith, who said the state listened to feedback from school districts and took into consideration the state's budget challenges in deciding to eliminate PARCC at the high school level.
Superintendent Lynne Panega, of Lake Park High School District 108, has long been critical of the high school testing lineup and called the elimination of PARCC "great news on multiple fronts."
In an email to the Tribune, she said,
"Using a college admissions test like the SAT for state and federal accountability is logical; it is meaningful for students and they have buy-in. This is what many high school superintendents continuously advocated for beginning several years ago. The implementation of PARCC at the high school level was flawed from the onset."
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