The message after decades of state tests? We’re commendable

Viewpoint: 

The commentary below represents the ideas, observations and opinions of the author.

Your friend is hosting a dinner party and you’ve just finished coffee and the dessert course.

Suddenly he stands up, pulls a sheaf of papers from a folder and begins speaking.

“Now we’re in for a real treat,” he says. “Wait until you see the scores in little Jimmy’s school report card.”

In a minute, he’s talking about how many students placed in the top quarter in language arts and math. You glance at your watch.

Five minutes later, he’s comparing the scores to those of nearby school districts and you feel a bead of perspiration on your forehead.

“Please don’t go on,” you say to yourself. “Why can’t you just show slides from your family’s vacation to Mt. Rushmore?”

But he goes on and on. Finally he stops and asks if there are any questions.

Your mouth is dry and your head is splitting but you still manage to blurt out the questions we’ve all been pondering:

“Does any of this really mean anything?”


That’s what I wrote in November 1990 – 28 years ago. For close to 20 years, I was fortunate enough to be the Sunday columnist at The Star, the south suburban newspaper of record for a century before it was ignominiously shuttered in 2007.

That column was an early effort and the first time I’d ever addressed statewide school testing. Over the years it became something of an obsession and I believe I wrote more than any other newspaper writer in Illinois on mandated tests, school report cards, No 

Child Left Behind and the effect all these developments had on local education.

All these years later, I believe that the italicized question from my original column still rings true.

A few weeks ago, we learned that eight of the nine public schools in the Homewood-Flossmoor area are now considered “commendable” by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), which has the loathsome task of overseeing mandated tests for our state’s students.

That sounds pretty good but it is not clear what it means, especially when about 70 percent of the schools in Illinois were found to be commendable. I suppose we could plan big pep rallies where everyone chants “We’re commendable!” or perhaps plan commendableness festivals designed to make us all feel praiseworthy.

I’ll get back to our commendable status in a little while. First, though, bear with me while I present a short history lesson.

In 1990, I was writing about the first statewide tests mandated by the Illinois General Assembly. The inaugural tests were given in the spring of that year to third, sixth and eighth grades throughout the state. It was all part of an initiative known as the Illinois Goals Assessment Program, or IGAP.

It’s not exactly clear why our lawmakers decided to burden our schools, teachers and students with standardized tests every year. In the 1980s, there were great fears about the United States falling behind other countries, especially Japan, and that might have had something to do with it. Also, there was a great move toward “accountability” in schools and the General Assembly, in its wisdom – or lack thereof – wanted to make sure the Illinois education system was working. And what better way to do that than with standardized tests?

Deep down inside, though, I have a feeling that the General Assembly really, truly did not like the education system very much and was looking for a way to make the schools look ineffective. According to the Illinois Constitution, the state has “primary responsibility” for funding the public schools but you would never know it. The state’s share of school funding has fallen over the years and the Illinois K-12 educational system now gets about 33 percent of its revenues from the state. That means that two-thirds of school funding comes from local property taxes.

School testing has conveniently given legislators someone to blame while they continue to shortchange the schools. And that’s the way it has been for three decades. A great many Illinois residents have grown up with state testing and believe that is the way things have always been done in the schools. Someone who would have been in sixth grade during that first testing year in 1990 would now be close to 40 years old, possibly with children of their own who are now facing state tests every year.

I am officially an old dude who graduated from a Chicago public high school during the Johnson administration and can say, unequivocally, that I do not remember taking any standardized tests prior to the ACT exam that I needed for a college application.

A lot has happened since that first IGAP test. A few years later, Illinois turned to the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, the ISAT, and the annual standardized exams began taking on a life of their own. In the fall of each year, the ISBE would release the results and it would be the major news story that day. Not surprisingly, the results generally showed that the highest test scores always could be found in the state’s most affluent communities. Which in turn sent a message that those high-scoring schools were “better” than schools with lesser results.

Homewood and Flossmoor, for years, have been better off economically than many other south suburban communities and the test results were generally respectable during the time that my three sons went to District 161 schools and then H-F High School. I was concerned about a great many things while they were doing their K-12 education – their classroom performance, how they got along with other kids, sports, playing music and getting ready for college. But I never got too concerned about the local school report cards.

I won’t talk much about No Child Left Behind, the federal education program during George W. Bush’s administration except that it was a disaster for the nation’s schools and ratcheted up the importance of mandated tests in a manner that bordered on being criminal. It was also a federal power grab that would have never been allowed during a Democratic administration. No Child Left Behind punished schools that performed poorly on the tests and turned the yearly exam period into a manic exercise where parents were told how much sleep kids should have before taking the ISAT tests, and what they should eat.

ISAT continued for several years until the PARCC test made its debut in 2015. Even before it was introduced the PARCC was the most unpopular standardized test ever. It was supposed to be a national test on “Common Core” knowledge but a number of states bailed on it before it was ever given one time. In Illinois, more than half the students who took PARCC in 2017 had failing scores. In February of this year, the ISBE announced that Illinois was stepping away from the hated test.

And that brings us back to our “commendable” schools. In a way, I think, the ISBE is telling us that our schools are doing a good job and that the money we spend on education is benefiting our children. However, as a parent whose kids learned a great deal in the H-F area’s educational system, I already knew that.

After three decades of mandated testing – and so much stress and fatigue about how our kids perform each spring – being recognized as commendable might be a sign of much-needed common sense.

Finally, it might all mean something.

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A great community deserves a great newspaper. The HF Chronicle was created in June 2014 as an online publication. In December 2015 we began monthly print publication, too. Our mission is to chronicle the life of our community — news by, for, and about the people of Homewood and Flossmoor, Illinois.

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