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Editorial: Truth about elementary school tests scores will hurt

Christopher Koch is Illinois' superintendent education.  |  Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Christopher Koch is Illinois' superintendent of education. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 15, 2012 6:18AM

Illinois parents and schoolkids, brace yourselves. Your collective sense of self-esteem is about to take a hit.

For years, state elementary school test scores have been inflated, leaving the false impression that public school students are doing pretty well. Scores released Oct. 31 showed that 82 percent of students met state standards.

Telling clues suggest otherwise. The biggest: The pass rate on the test for high school juniors is only 51 percent.

No, our kids aren’t getting dumber as they age. It’s the yardstick that’s dumb.

In 2006, the elementary student testing system was retooled and scores soared. Since then, there’s been a huge disconnect between elementary and high school scores. For a time, state and Chicago education officials denied that the scoring system was too easy.

Those days are over. Next spring, grammar school students will have to jump a higher hurdle to meet state standards. Far more students will fall short and the average will drop well below 82 percent.

It may hurt — and so the state has to hold firm on this — but we’ll finally really know where we stand.

This is just one of many steps the State Board of Education, ably led by Supt. Christopher Koch and Board Chairman Gery Chico, is taking to try to raise achievement.

The board’s recent efforts, and those of the state Legislature, are catalogued in a report released Tuesday by the influential education advocacy group, Advance Illinois. Those efforts include adopting more rigorous reading and math standards; raising the bar for new teacher candidates and creating a long-term data system to track students.

The group noted Illinois’ unique challenges: The percentage of poor students jumped from 36 percent in 1999 to 49 percent in 2012. Despite that, scores have improved modestly in reading and math.

But Advance Illinois does not sugarcoat how far Illinois has to go and how crucial it is to stay on the course the state has set. Only one-third of Illinois fourth-graders ranked proficient in reading on a rigorous national exam, and low-income and minority students fared worse.

The first step is knowing where we stand. The far harder second step is to begin the tough climb.

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