Aided by Data, Illinois Charts a Bold Path Toward Equity

At 33, Lebron James is broadly considered the best basketball player in the world. Some regard him as the greatest of all time. What is striking, however, is that in his 16th season, he’s arguably playing his best basketball ever – something analysts say is a result of his legendary work ethic, his growth mindset, and commitment to continue to learn about his craft.

Last week, Illinois unveiled a new statewide, growth-based accountability system predicated on the belief that everyone – no matter their level of subject-matter proficiency – has room for improvement.

“We value growth – even growth of students in high achieving schools,” says Rae Clementz, Director of Assessment and Accountability at the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE).

The new system is the product of a Herculean effort on the part of ISBE officials to solicit stakeholder engagement and incorporate public input as it worked to achieve compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a national education law that gave states wide, new flexibility in determining how to best prepare students for success after high school.

ISBE held over 100 listening and engagement sessions. It made three drafts of the plan publicly available while providing numerous opportunities for public comments. The result, say state officials, is a blueprint that reflects Illinois values.

“Equity is the frame through which we view all our work,” says Clementz. “Stakeholders wanted a system that was fair and non-punitive” while providing critical support needed to help students meet the state’s rigorous academic standards.

Illinois has 852 school districts. Only Texas and California have more. Due to historical funding formulas, disparities in funding across these districts are real. Some schools are operating at funding levels that are roughly half of what is considered adequate; others are funded at levels 200% above adequacy.

The end goal, say policymakers, is to create a more equitable system by accurately identifying the state’s lowest-performing schools, and then directing additional support toward them.

Beginning this year, the quality of Illinois schools will be measured through an array of indicators including English language proficiency, graduation rates, and factors such as chronic absenteeism. But the greatest emphasis – 50% – will be on academic growth; proficiency in math and ELA will account for 20% (reduced to 15% in the 2019-20 school year).

State officials say their ability to achieve success in closing the adequacy gap depends in large part on data-driven decision-making.

“When we couple evidence-based funding with academic need, we start to have a fantastic intersection,” says Clementz.

Focusing on growth year-over-year requires a consistent measure, so that the state can track improvements over time.

Illinois is also in the midst of a transition to a next-generation adaptive assessment – a change that will help further support growth. But the change will require the state to address the technical challenges of redesigning its assessment system while maintaining its historical trends.

To do that, ISBE’s recent RFP for the design of the new assessment required that new designs incorporate an anchor set of test items to link the new test back to historical results on the outgoing PARCC test.  New Meridian is providing technical support in selecting the anchor set from the expansive item bank of high-quality test items developed by the PARCC states and now managed by New Meridian.

“We’ve been fortunate to have the longitudinal data that we have,” adds Clementz, who notes that the ability to measure growth depends on establishing high-quality benchmarks. “As we think about making improvements to the assessments, it’s important that we maintain continuity.”