College & Workforce Readiness

To Be ‘Proficient’ in Illinois, You Have to Be More Than College-Ready

By Catherine Gewertz — November 17, 2017 | Corrected: November 20, 2017 5 min read
A student works a problem in the pages of a prep book during a test practice class at a high school in Naperville, Ill. Illinois is one of a dozen states that have had to set “proficiency” cut scores on the SAT, and in some cases, those are higher than the scores for college readiness.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story suggested that Michigan uses the ACT. It uses the SAT.

Illinois has decided that in order to be considered “proficient” on its statewide high school test, students will have to earn a higher score on the SAT than the one that’s correlated with college readiness.

The decision has touched a nerve in national testing debates about how states should meaningfully measure high school achievement and report it clearly to parents.

As part of its work to create an accountability system for its schools, the Illinois state board of education decided last month that students will be deemed proficient if they score 540 on each section of the SAT, the exam Illinois uses to measure high school achievement.

Each section of the college-admissions exam is scored from 200 to 800. The College Board considers students “college ready” if they score 480 in English and 530 in math. That means they have a 75 percent chance of earning a C or better in entry-level, credit-bearing college classes.

Other than influencing their chances of college admission, scores below the 540 cutoff won’t affect Illinois students, since their grades and graduation are not linked to their scores.

But Illinois schools have a lot on the line in the new plan; their students’ average SAT scores will count for 20 percent of their academic rating in the report card Illinois issues for each public school.

And early signs suggest cause for concern. In the first statewide administration of the SAT, in the spring of 2017, Illinois juniors averaged a 512 in English/language arts, so only 39.8 percent met the 540 cutoff score. In the math, their average score was 504. Only 36.4 percent met the SAT score cutoff.

“I worry about my colleagues who feel the pressure to maintain their ratings. This could be a black mark on their records,” said Kevin O’Mara, the executive director of the High School District Organization of Illinois, which represents the superintendents of the state’s 140 high school-only school districts.

Setting the proficiency cutoff at a level that exceeds the SAT’s own college-readiness benchmarks was “a poor decision,” he said, and one that is likely to confuse parents.

“How do you explain to parents that the College Board considers your kid college-ready, but our state board says they didn’t make the cut?” O’Mara said.

How High is ‘Proficient’?

The 540 cutoff scores were set by panels of educators who were brought together to dive into the state’s academic standards and determine the level of achievement on the SAT that best reflects mastery of those standards, A. Rae Clementz, the state board’s director of assessment and accountability, said in an interview. That level turned out to be higher than the College Board’s college-readiness score, she said.

To see whether their recommendations were reasonable, they examined how proficiency rates would compare to rates on tests students already take, such as PARCC, which Illinois uses to measure achievement in grades 3-8, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, Clementz said.

The panelists found, for example, that with a 540 SAT cutoff, 36.3 percent of students would score proficient in math. Currently, 32.3 percent of 8th grade students score proficient on the math portion of the PARCC exam. With a 540 score cutoff in English, 39.7 percent are projected to score proficient on the SAT, slightly higher than the 37.4 percent of 8th graders who reach that range on PARCC.

Clementz acknowledged in a webinar that the state “will need to do considerable messaging” to clear up confusion between the College Board’s definition of college readiness and the scores that Illinois decided reflect mastery of the state’s academic expectations.

Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment, which advises states on testing issues, said a move like Illinois’ comes with benefits and risks.

On one hand, it signals high expectations, but it also “could backfire if schools’ ratings go down. Then it becomes a credibility problem for them: Are schools doing a good job?”

In the last few years, as a wave of anti-testing sentiment crested, many states dropped the tests they’d been using to measure mastery of their standards, and chose to use college-admission tests instead. Psychometricians have warned that the SAT and ACT were designed to measure the likelihood of success in college, not whether students learned the skills outlined in their states’ academic standards.

Wrestling With Scores

Twelve states now use the SAT or ACT as their official measures of achievement, and they’re wrestling with the same cut-score-setting process as Illinois, since federal law requires states to report three or more levels of achievement on their tests.

Four states that use the SAT decided to tackle the problem together. Delaware, Connecticut, Maine, and New Hampshire brought educators together to figure out the SAT score that best reflected their academic expectations, as stated in the Common Core State Standards.

They settled on using the College Board’s own college-readiness benchmarks as their proficiency cutoffs, even though the panels of educators recommended higher cut points.

Michigan uses the SAT college-ready benchmarks to connote proficiency on its test, according to a spokesman for the state department of education.

States that use the ACT have made varied choices about where to set their proficiency cutoff scores. ACT, which is scored on a 1-36 point scale, considers students college-ready with scores of 18 in English, 22 in math and reading, and 23 in science. In Louisiana, students are considered proficient if their composite score on the ACT is 21 or higher.

Nebraska took a different approach, setting the ACT score cutoff at 18 in both math and English, four points lower than ACT’s math college-readiness score, and two points below it in English. State education department spokesman David Jesperson said that in setting those scores, Nebraska took into account the scores its state universities use for admission.

In Wisconsin, proficiency means an ACT score of 22 in math, the same level as ACT’s college-ready cutoff, and 20 English, a blend of ACT’s benchmarks for the reading and English portions of its exam. Wyoming set its proficiency scores at one point below ACT’s college-ready benchmark in math and one point above it English/language arts, according to the ACT.

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