December 04, 2014

Illinois Set To Test Common Core Standards

Illinois students are scheduled to take the new Common Core test this spring, despite a growing chorus of parents and educators opposing it.

To get some idea of how controversial the test is, consider this: The number of states that have legalized marijuana use -- 23 -- is double the number of states that have agreed to use this test -- just 11. Of those 11, only eight have agreed to use both the elementary and high school portions of the test. Illinois is one of these states.

It’s known by the acronym PARCC -- Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers -- and will replace both the ISAT and Prairie State Assessment Exam, although high school juniors will still take the ACT this year. The PARCC involves students taking two tests -- one in March, and a shorter one in May. Math and Language Arts are the only subjects covered this year.

The argument against the test was summed up by Peter Bavis, an assistant superintendent at Evanston Township High School, in his October presentation to the Evanston school board.

“The PARCC test is neither valid nor reliable as a measure, and the reason for that is because it’s never been given to a large population," Bavis says. "So we’re paying to have a private testing company norm their instrument on the backs of Illinois students. That’s a big problem.”

Chicago Public Schools sought a one-year delay in using the test, and a half dozen states have established the right of students to opt out of taking it. But Chris Koch, superintendent of the Illinois State Board of Education, has tried to quash any such efforts here. On his agency's website, Koch wrote: “Opting out of PARCC is not an option.”

What makes this test so radioactive? For starters, it’s based on the Common Core learning standards -- a radical overhaul of language arts and math benchmarks that was initially embraced by educators. In the recent mid-term elections, however, several candidates successfully ran on anti-Common Core platforms. They framed the argument as federal authorities dictating to locals.

Contrary to popular belief, these standards were not formulated by the federal government. They’re the result of an initiative launched by 48 governors and state school officers. But they establish a progression of academic milestones designed to apply throughout the country. And the government did provide an incentive for states to adopt Common Core.

"In order to submit a bid for a federal grant, you had to sign on to the standards," says Scott Filkins, a literacy support teacher at Champaign Central High School. He is the co-author of a paper released by the National Council of Teachers of English called “Formative Assessment that Truly Informs Instruction” -- and they italicized the word TRULY for a reason: They don’t think PARCC is the kind of test they need.

“I feel, and lots of others in the field feel, that we need to work more on helping teachers assess in the classroom context all along the way. Because a kid’s score on the PARCC is not going to tell you how to teach him better,” Filkins says.

He also believes that the tests and the Common Core standards were “reverse engineered,” formulated by starting at the goal for high school juniors and then working backwards, dividing milestones grade by grade down to kindergarten.

“It puts kids on a weird developmental trajectory that’s not necessarily true," Filkins says, "but it makes the standards look like a neat progression.”

On the other hand, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics enthusiastically support Common Core. Lynn Narasimhan, a professor of mathematical sciences at DePaul University, says the standards introduce fewer math topics, so teachers can go more in-depth.

“Part of that also is that they’re very well designed as progressions from grade to grade,” she says.

So Common Core has its supporters and its critics. And in Illinois, as school districts prepare to administer the PARCC test in the spring, the controversy is unlikely to go away anytime soon.


November 04, 2014

Champaign Unit Four Voters Defeat Bond Referendum

Champaign Public Schools will have to try again for the money to build a new high school and renovate an existing one. The referendum for a $149 million-dollar bond sale failed last night — 52 percent voting no and 47 percent voting yes.

School Board President Laurie Bonnett says the district plans to do a voter analysis study, to find which residents might need more convincing. She says the district's high schools are already overcrowded, and it will only get worse without an increase to property taxes to fund construction.

"There are some that say, 'You know, I can't afford that.' And I get that," she said. "But I also don't know that we can afford not to have a place for our kids at the table, in the classroom ... So if there are community members that have a suggestion as how to add 500 seats, and, no, trailers don't count--then I'd be happy to hear their suggestions."

The bonds would have paid for construction of a new high school on the north end of Champaign, to replace the 76-year-old Champaign Central High School building, and for the expansion and renovation of 47-year-old Centennial High School.

Unit Four officials noted overcrowding at both schools, and a lack of athletic fields at Central, as well as modern learning facilities like science labs and collaborative spaces.

But many residents expressed opposition to building a “new Central High School” on the very northern edge of the city, instead of in a more central location. School officials say there was no central location available that would offer the space the new high school campus would need.

Bonnett says the district might try again on the April ballot, but may have to table the effort for the time being.

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