Illinois Juniors' Test Score Drop Blamed On New Policy That Tests More Students

After the most recent return of 11th grade Prairie State Achievement Exam scores found nearly half of Illinois public school students failing to meet state standards, instructors and education advocates are blaming a recent policy change that requires more students to take the test. Individual local school results were released to the public Monday, and many schools report that their scores, and the reaction they've provoked from parents, aren't an accurate assessment of changes in student performance in the past year.

Last year, the state closed a loophole that had previously kept nearly 8 percent of Illinois 11th graders from taking the exam with their peers, primarily low-performing students who didn't qualify as 11th graders in May 2009, but caught up with their peers in 12th grade months later. Last year, that kept nearly 10,000 students from taking the exam.

For schools whose funding and resources may depend on these performance scores, the change is significant. TribLocal Wheaton reports that at Willowbrook High School, a school that has earned national recognition for its academics, the number of students scoring at grade level in reading, math and science on the most recent exams was down 21 percentage points from the year before. At the same time, the number of students who took the exam climbed by 80 percent with the new eligibility rules in place.

Illinois schools were also subjected this year to a change in the formula used to calculate graduation rates as they align with federal directives, considered to be one of the most significant measures of educational success. Under the new calculations, about 75 percent of Illinois high schools saw their graduation rates decline after individual students were tracked, and a four-year graduation requirement was enforced, in tabulations student performance.

Although substantial drops in test scores and graduation rates statewide don't indicate any changes in overall student performance, they could have serious ramifications for many Illinois schools, where No Child Left Behind requires 85 percent of students to pass reading and math tests, a higher cutoff than in previous years.