The state's plan to switch to a new student achievement exam has run into opposition from top Illinois high schools, who argue that the ACT is a better tool and that the expanded hours of testing could lead to a "veritable season of test-taking" every spring.
Seven superintendents hand-delivered a letter Thursday to State Superintendent Christopher Koch, asking him to "slow down the train" and delay the new statewide achievement test to allow more time to evaluate the state's options. The letter was signed by three dozen superintendents from school districts in the Chicago area, including several feeder high schools for the University of Illinois.
"We want an assessment that is valid, is reliable, is meaningful and is in the best interests of students. Schools should be held accountable. We embrace that. But you have to balance it with, is this in the best interest of students?" said Lynne Panega, a co-author of the letter and superintendent of the Lake Park High School district in Roselle.
The new PARCC test — developed by Pearson Publishing through a consortium of states called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — is designed to match the new "Common Core" learning standards and better gauge whether students are on track to succeed in college and careers, state education officials say. It is being piloted in schools this spring on a limited basis and is scheduled to be used for grades three to 11 next in 2015, replacing both the Illinois State Achievement Tests (ISATs) and the Prairie State Achievement Exam for high school juniors.
The new test has caused consternation around the state for a number of reasons, including the possibility that it won't include the ACT, the nation's most recognized college-entrance exam. Since 2001, Illinois juniors have taken the ACT for free in school as part of the two-day Prairie State exam.
The seven superintendents who met with Koch last week urged him to drop the PARCC for 11th graders and continue using the ACT and existing "work keys" career-readiness tests instead.
While the superintendents said they are impressed by the quality of the new PARCC test, the ACT and final exams are perceived as "significantly more important" by students, families and colleges. And many high schools use the ACT and its college-readiness program for freshmen and sophomores as an integral part of their school improvement plans, with good results, officials said.
The ACT helps schools measure their progress and carries weight with students and parents because it influences college admissions, said Gregory Johnson and Mark Denman, principals at Champaign's Centennial High School and Danville High School.
"There's strong ownership among high schools with the ACT," Panega said. "Students buy into the ACT. They need that ACT score."
In addition, the 15.5 hours of test time that PARCC will require between March and June fall during the same window as the national ACT spring test date, final exams and tests for Advanced Placement high school courses, "resulting in a veritable season of test-taking at the expense of instruction," the letter said.
"It's impossible. You have a fourth quarter of the school year that's almost entirely devoted to testing," Panega said.
The PARCC test will be administered to grades 3-11 in two parts, once during the third quarter to measure progress, and once at the end of the year. Students will be tested in waves over a 20-day period in literacy and math.
Since many high school classes have a mixture of students from different grades, that means a significant number could be absent for any given class over a 40-day period, or 87 percent of the semester, the superintendents' letter argued.
"High schools are saying, 'What are you doing to us?'" said Laura Taylor, assistant superintendent for achievement and student services in Champaign.
Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said the board is aware of the concerns about the ACT, and that's why the agency's state budget request for 2015 includes $14 million to continue giving the ACT as the state transitions to the new test. But it may be difficult to get the money because the agency is also asking for full funding for the PARCC test ($33 million), she said.
Altogether the budget seeks $54.5 million for assessments, almost double this year's $27.4 million appropriation.
"We understand that legislators may not want to fund both the PARCC and ACT. We would advocate for funding the PARCC because it is an assessment system that aligns with our new standards," she said.
It's possible the ACT could become optional, rather than mandatory, and the state could cover testing expenses for students from low-income families, an approach taken by other states, Fergus said.
Even if the funding comes through, State Board of Education members haven't made a final decision to use the ACT next year, Fergus said last week.
Fergus said the ACT was initially included as part of the statewide testing program in 2001 because it's a rigorous exam and the State Board wanted to give more students access to the test.
"We know that districts and families really like the ACT, and we like the ACT as well," Fergus said. "But we've also approved new learning standards in the last couple of years and we've invested in a group that's helped develop the PARCC, which is really completely aligned to our standards and will give information based on those standards for college readiness.
"The ACT allows colleges to identify the top performers; it does not further learning," she said.
High school counselors say offering the ACT in school can open up the possibility of college, particularly at a four-year school, to students who've never considered it before. For one thing, students choose four colleges that will receive their ACT scores when they take the test. Those schools then send marketing materials to the students, "some who would have otherwise not received college information in the mail," said Sam Furrer, counselor at Urbana High School.
Centennial's Johnson, a former English teacher, likes the new PARCC assessment. He said it takes a more comprehensive approach to literacy — asking students, for instance, to write about something they've read in a different section of the test, rather than a completely new topic.
Still, he thinks the ACT should remain an in-school option for students. Most of Centennial's seniors go on to a two-year or four-year college.
"I want to provide that service to our families. I think the state should be a part of providing that service to our families," he said.
Students used to take the ACT on their own before 2001. But the cost — at least $36.50 and up to $95 or more, depending on what options students choose — can be a burden for some families, principals and counselors say.
"It's a little more equitable this way," Johnson said. "If we can make sure that every single kid who comes through gets it as part of their high school experience, then we can remove possible roadblocks as they press on to college."
Almost 30 percent of Illinois students didn't take the ACT before it was required, said Ed Colby, spokesman for ACT.
Illinois is one of 13 states that currently require the ACT as part of their statewide assessments.
The state has also paid for high schools to give the ACT "Plan" and "Explore" tests to freshmen and sophomores, as well as a practice ACT test during the fall semester of their junior year, to help them prepare for the ACT.
But the Iowa-based company is scrapping the Plan and Explore tests and replacing them with a more comprehensive assessment program for grades three through 12, called ACT Aspire, that is aligned with its college entrance exam. It will be rolled out later this spring, Colby said.
State board officials have said the ACT Aspire package isn't as closely aligned with the new Common Core learning standards.
High schools aren't so sure.
"We've talked to community colleges, and they don't even know what the PARCC is," Roloff said. "They certainly know what the ACT is."
Panega said the superintendents told Koch they'd like the state to revisit the possibility of using ACT Aspire for the high school level, at least, rather than PARCC.
She said Koch indicated he would discuss the concerns with his staff, and continue reviewing the matter as the PARCC test is field-tested this spring at schools around the state.
"We do feel that our concerns were heard," she said.
Charles Tucker, vice provost for undergraduate education and Innovation at the UI, said the university supports the more rigorous Common Core standards, but the PARCC tests are still a "giant question mark."
"We don't know yet how they're going to square up against anything else we're used to, ACTs or our own placement tests," he said.
Brenda Yoho, director of educational support programs for Danville schools, thinks the state should look at the big picture: whether the tests do anything to prepare students for college and life beyond.
With high school graduates too often having to take remedial courses in college, she said, schools need to focus on a rigorous curriculum that monitors students' progression all year long, in every grade.
"Is a nine-hour or eight-hour assessment going to help with moving that forward and doing what's best for students?" she asked.
Fergus said that's the aim of PARCC: to challenge students to think critically, problem solve and communicate effectively, skills that will drive success in college and the workplace. For the first time, she said, the system will deliver timely student scores so teachers can adjust their lesson plans to help individual students before they move on to another grade. That will help reduce remedial courses in college, "saving students time and their families' money."
Superintendents: PARCC will add 15 hours of testing
Superintendents say the new PARCC statement assessment set to start in spring 2015 will add more than 15 hours to an already busy testing schedule for high school juniors (if you count getting students set up with computers, providing instructions and actually administering the tests).
Here's a look at the tentative schedule for April/May 2015, if the ACT continues to be used:
PARCC test (Literacy and Math): 15 hours, 35 minutes
ACT Plus (English, Reading, Math, Writing, Science): 3 hours, 30 minutes
WorkKeys (Reading, Math, Locating Information): 2 hours, 15 minutes
Total testing time: 21 hours, 20 minutes*
* Does not include tests for Advanced Placement courses or final exams.
Source: Letter to State Superintendent Christopher Koch from 36 Illinois high school superintendents. Here is the full letter.