09/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Illinois ACT Scores are Stagnant: Why Don't We Listen to Arne?

The state's 2009 standardized test scores, released by the Illinois State Board of Education last week, showed incremental improvement in ACT scores, the exam given to Illinois high-school juniors.

How incremental were the improvements? This year the composite is score 20.8. Last year it was 20.7. The two years before that it was 20.5. Though the growth is real -- nationally, scores have remained flat -- almost everyone would agree that this growth is too slow. Illinois juniors still score below the national average.

So what aggressive reforms should Illinois policymakers enact to bring Illinois to the head of the class? For starters, the ones being pushed on states by our (arguably) second-favorite son, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Last week, a Newsweek columnist called Duncan a "stealth reformer," noting that, after just a few months in office, he has already pushed 46 states to adopt uniform standards and prodded the laggards on school choice -- like Illinois -- to lift charter-school caps. Duncan has been successful in pressing his reform agenda due to the shrewdness with which he has deployed the $4.3 billion in "Race to the Top" funds provided to him by the federal stimulus. By dangling the money before states and issuing thinly-veiled threats to those that don't shape up, Duncan has given the U.S. education establishment a firm kick in the rear.

Though he has been aggressive, it shouldn't be missed that Duncan is pushing middle-of-the-road, common-sense reforms, the sort that should have been enacted years ago. And that's why Illinois' decidedly-mediocre position in the "Race to the Top" competition is so disappointing. Indeed, the fact that Illinois is poised to lose out on much-needed dollars is secondary to the larger issue of our failure to reform.

An analysis by The New Teachers Project -- the national umbrella of the Chicago Teaching Fellows and a group founded by now-D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee -- finds that Illinois is only "somewhat competitive" for the "Race to the Top" funds, behind 12 states that score "competitive" and two that score "highly competitive." According to the analysis, there are five areas the Department of Education will consider when determining which states will likely win the funds. In three, Illinois receives a big, fat zero. Below, I consider each of them.

1.) Using data to track students.

Few people seriously oppose using data on achievement, demographics and other variables to track students' growth. Data-driven instruction has become a mantra among educators, and the fact that such practices are not systematic in Illinois speaks more to the state government's administrative incompetence than to a sclerotic legislature. The state is just now moving toward implementing a longitudinal data system, according to a friend of mine in Gov. Pat Quinn's office, a move that is long overdue.

2.) Creating alternative routes to teacher certification.

The fact that Illinois has now slipped in terms of creating alternative routes to certification is truly unfortunate, given that the state is home to such venerable alternative-certification programs as the Academy for Urban School Leadership. The achievement data on programs like The New Teachers Project and Teach for America is inconclusive but generally positive. Finding ways to recruit and train mid-career professionals and non-education majors could go a long way toward helping schools find high-quality instructors.

3.) Allowing a state agency to take over failing schools.

Illinois currently has no agency to take over low-performing schools, demonstrating why our state perfectly encapsulates the No Child Left Behind Act's failures. After all, the law lets states dramatically dumb down their own exams to show faux improvements (check) and allows students to transfer out of failing schools without creating new schools and charters to accommodate the students (check). Though the Chicago Public Schools has taken aggressive action against many failing schools -- the charter I work at was formerly a CPS school that Duncan shut down and handed over to a charter -- the fact that Illinois has no similar structure allows low-achieving schools to continue to operate without any accountability.

The home state of the secretary of education should be leading the way in enacting reforms, especially when they are as straightforward as using data to track student growth, finding ways to recruit non-educators into the profession and closing down failing schools. And the federal money we might receive in return for helping ourselves is a nice added benefit, especially when CPS is in the financial shape it's in.