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September 23, 2015

Last year, Illinois implemented a new standardized test to assess student achievement.

Known as PARCC — which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — the test is supposed to measure how well students have mastered the relatively new Common Core curriculum. Adopted by Illinois just five years ago, Common Core represents a significant departure from past educational practice, primarily in its emphasis on deeper learning and greater focus on critical thinking and problem-solving skill development.

The initial PARCC results are in, and absolutely no one is happy with the numbers. Under PARCC, only 38 percent of Illinois' eighth grade students met or exceeded standards in English, with just 31 percent doing so in math. In high school, 31 percent met or exceeded English standards, while just 17 percent satisfied math standards, with no students exceeding.

Before the uninformed blame-game begins in earnest, let's balance the PARCC results with a little perspective.

For myriad reasons, there was no rational basis to believe student achievement on PARCC would be acceptable. Any first-time exam has flaws, and PARCC is no exception. It's difficult to believe and highly improbable statistically that no Illinois high schooler exceeded standards in math. Indeed, many Illinois students ace the math component of the ACT. PARCC's designers already are modifying various aspects of the assessment to address issues involving everything from technology, to question design and test length.

According to the state's most recent, pre-PARCC data, we already knew most Illinois high school students don't graduate high school ready for college or careers. Last year, only 36 percent of Illinois' eighth graders were proficient in math on the NAEP exams, which compare student achievement nationwide. So even though the PARCC scores are lower than desired, what we already knew indicated significant room for educational improvement.

However, the most compelling reason why everyone should have expected disappointing scores on PARCC has less to do with the test itself, as problematic as it is, and more to do with Illinois' inadequate investment in K-12 education. That's because Illinois is a tale of two education systems. Communities with sufficient property wealth fund an excellent education from their local resources. Hence, their schools have the capacity to implement the Common Core standards in a meaningful way. And that's no mean feat, given there aren't ample Common Core-compliant curricula available, particularly in math. But having sufficient local capacity allows schools to overcome many challenges associated with developing and implementing Common Core curriculum.

Moreover, most students attending schools in communities with property wealth are likely to succeed academically because relatively few of them are low-income or English language learners, who are considered at risk of academic failure.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of children in Illinois don't attend schools in communities with substantial property wealth. More than half of these kids are at risk. Hence, Illinois schools educating most of our at-risk students rely far more heavily on the state for funding. That's a problem because Illinois not only ranks 50th in the portion of education funding covered by state rather than local resources, but the starting point for education funding in Illinois — dubbed the foundation level — is so inadequate that by Illinois' own standards it leaves K-12 education some $4 billion short of what's needed to provide a quality education. And that's before trying to implement a more rigorous curriculum like Common Core.

This means the real takeaways from the PARCC results are twofold. First, most Illinois schools not only lack the capacity to implement Common Core curriculum effectively, they also lack the capacity to provide a quality education. Second, enacting more rigorous academic standards alone doesn't drive enhanced student achievement. After all, it isn't possible for students to satisfy higher academic standards unless schools have the resources to provide the level of education needed.

Source: State Journal-Register