Chicago parents and teachers unite against standardized testing

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Students protesting outside of Wells High School during the teachers strike in September.
Parents of Chicago Public Schools students passed petitions today outside 37 schools, calling for CPS to drastically reduce its reliance on standardized tests. The parents, members of a coalition called More Than a Score, also want CPS to fully disclose the cost and purpose of the 22 tests currently administered in the district.

The Chicago Teachers Union, one of four organizations in the More Than a Score coalition, published a paper Monday decrying the "dramatic shift" toward standardized tests in the last 20 years, "led not by educators but the business sector" and "without evidence connecting it to real learning."

The local opposition to standardized testing has been energized by a teacher boycott of a test in Seattle. On January 10, teachers at Seattle's Garfield High School announced that they wouldn't administer the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test to ninth graders.

The Seattle school superintendent threatened to discipline the teachers, but the boycott continues, and parents have now joined the teachers. Garfield's principal and assistant principals have begun administering the MAP test—with little success because of parent opposition. About 400 ninth graders were supposed to take the reading test yesterday, according to the Seattle Times, but only 97 of them did; the other 300 were excused with their parents' permission.

The Seattle teachers have said that MAP, which is usually given three times a year, eats up valuable class time and ties up computer labs. The teachers have also questioned the validity of the test's results.

While the More Than a Score coalition objects to the abundance of standardized tests, MAP in particular is a key target in Chicago, especially for teachers, because it's being used in evaluating many of them. For reading, writing, and math teachers in grades three through eight, 25 percent of their evaluation this year (and 30 percent next year) will be based on their students' improvement on MAP.

MAP is a major component of standardized testing nationally. Introduced in 2000, the test is now used by more than 5,200 school districts. It's marketed by the Northwest Evaluation Association, a not-for-profit assessment company based in Oregon.

Matt Chapman, NWEA's president and CEO, responded to the Seattle boycott with an op-ed in the Seattle Times. Teachers were "rightfully concerned" about high-stakes testing, he wrote. "In a decadelong quest for accountability, we have lost sight of the real purpose of assessments in the schools, and the mission of public schools themselves—student learning."

But MAP was no ordinary standardized test, he said; in fact, it was "the anti-standardized test."

"Developed by researchers, educators and psychometricians, MAP yields immediate insight for teachers while they still have an opportunity to teach and influence a child's learning," Chapman wrote. Legions of teachers were using MAP results to tailor their teaching to individual students, thereby improving learning for "countless kids," he said.

MAP was the subject of a Department of Education study published in December. The authors of the study noted that while MAP was used extensively in the U.S., there was "no experimental evidence on its impact on student outcomes. Given that the number of schools investing in MAP and similar programs is projected to increase, evidence on the effectiveness of such programs is critical."

So the researchers conducted a rigorous study of MAP's effects on the reading of fourth and fifth graders in 32 Illinois elementary schools. The results: Although the teachers in the study were thoroughly trained by NWEA staff in using MAP results to provide "differentiated instructional practices" in their classrooms, they mostly didn't do so. And MAP "did not have a statistically significant impact on students' reading achievement in either grade 4 or grade 5."

I wondered what CPS officials thought of these findings in light of the district's heavy reliance on MAP. In an e-mail response, John Barker, who oversees student testing as chief accountability officer, noted that "teacher behavior didn't change for the schools in the study" and that "educators across CPS are working every day to ensure that MAP results change teaching practices and in turn, improve learning outcomes for students in grades 3-8."

I also asked a CPS spokesperson on Monday morning how much MAP is costing the district. She hasn't yet been able to tell me.

Regarding standardized tests generally, chief communications officer Becky Carroll said in a statement: "These tools are critical not only for measuring student growth, but to help teachers and principals identify the unique academic needs of students to help them be successful in the classroom. CEO [Barbara] Byrd-Bennett has asked her new Chief of Accountability to review all existing assessments in our system so she may analyze their use and purpose to ensure that each one adds value to our children's learning."

I spoke this morning with Rhoda Gutierrez, one of the parents who was petitioning for a limit on student testing. Gutierrez and seven other parents collected signatures outside of Coonley elementary, where Gutierrez has a child in second grade and another in kindergarten. The school is on Leavitt near Irving Park, not far from Mayor Emanuel's home; when Emanuel announced his campaign for mayor, he did so at Coonley.

"These tests don't measure the kind of learning that a teacher can instill in a child," Gutierrez said. "They force teachers to teach to the tests. What kind of school culture are we going to have across the board in CPS?

"It's disturbing that this is the direction we continue to go down," she said. "I think we have to ask ourselves, 'What's really the purpose of education?'"

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