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No more faking kids’ test scores

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Updated: August 19, 2013 1:57PM

Now we know.

Only about half of all Chicago elementary schoolchildren perform at grade level, far below the 74 percent figure Chicago achieved last year using an easier scoring system, according to preliminary 2013 state test data released Tuesday.

No, Chicago public schoolchildren are not getting dumber.

Instead, the state made it much harder to pass reading and math tests this year, causing scores for CPS and, most likely, all Illinois school districts to plummet. CPS is the first district to release scores based on the new, harder-to-achieve cut scores.

And as painful as that may be, it’s progress.

For too long, elementary test scores have been inflated, leaving the false impression that students are doing pretty well. A major clue indicated otherwise — average Illinois high school test scores, which are based on a far more rigorous standards, were significantly lower than elementary scores.

The result? Bright-looking eighth-graders ended up looking pretty dim when as juniors they took the ACT college exam.

Now, for the first time, the state has aligned those standards, holding all kids to the higher college and career-ready standard. This is meant to get Illinois ready for the tougher common core curriculum that is now being phased in. The state will test students against that standard beginning next year.

Consider this year’s results, then, as both a new baseline and a crucial reality check.

Overall, 52.5 percent of third-through eighth-graders meet state standards in reading, math and science. For reading, it’s 48 percent. For math, it’s 50.1 percent.

“Before, we thought three-quarters of CPS students were there, but it’s really half,” explained Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, an advocacy group spearheading an effort to help parents understand the changes in the scoring system. “It’s not nearly as good as we thought, but at least we’re being honest and we know what hill we have to climb.”

We hope this dose of tough medicine proves helpful to CPS’ teachers and leaders, who supported the scoring change, as they look to the future.

And as they begin, they have good news to build on.

This year, 65 percent of schools saw growth in the percentage of students at grade level, a trend that cut across all grades and subjects. And, after recalculating results using the state’s new cut scores, CPS found that the percentage of students performing at grade level has steadily increased over the last decade.

The modest growth this year, though nothing to write home about, came in a year of unprecedented disruption, beginning with a strike and ending with the closure of nearly 50 schools. In addition, 20 percent of the test questions were based for the first time on the tougher common core standards.

The expectation was for schools to slip, not increase slightly.

That said, we caution reading too much into that trend line. The percentage of students who meet state standards is an extremely blunt instrument — it tells you how many kids jumped over that hurdle but says nothing about kids above and below that point. It also doesn’t account for year-over-year changes in the tests. In 2011, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research dismissed this kind of year-over-year comparison. Using a far more sophisticated statistical method, the consortium found almost no growth in reading scores from 1990 to 2009 — despite year-over-year comparisons indicating otherwise.

Better, of course, to have the trend heading up.

But even better to focus on 52.5 percent and remember how far Chicago has to go.

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