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Standardized testing overkill at CPS

Even Chicago school officials allow that they're giving students too many standardized tests. Will they really cut back?

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"I dream of the day when there aren't any standardized tests," Daisy Maass is telling me. "That would be an amazing classroom. We could have so much fun, and we'd learn so much."

Daisy is an effusive 13-year-old with hazel eyes and dyed red hair. She's an eighth grader at Skinner West, a classical and fine arts school on the near-west side. She's also one of a handful of Chicago Public Schools students who recently sat out a standardized test. In January, while her classmates tapped in answers on the computerized Measuring Academic Progress test, Daisy read The Warrior Heir, a fantasy novel. "My classmates were like, 'Man, I'm so jealous.'"

We're talking in her mother's condo, which overlooks Humboldt Park. It's a snowy evening in February. Daisy's sitting on a couch, her legs folded beneath her. Her hands are constantly moving, sky-blue fingernails punctuating her points.

"When we're getting close to a MAP test, the teacher will start teaching to it," she says. "We'll pick up more on vocabulary, or we'll start doing a lot of multiple choice. You notice class time becoming slower, and it's like, 'Oh, we're doing the prep work again.'"

Daisy's mother, Marlene Martin, has long been opposed to the proliferation of standardized testing in Chicago's public schools. But only recently did she learn that a parent could opt her child out. The decision was Daisy's as well as her parents'.

"In our opinion, standardized testing has gotten out of control," Martin wrote in a letter to the principal of Skinner West. The tests take "valuable learning time away from the students" and don't "assess students' ability to understand difficult material. They do not measure creativity, imagination or curiosity.

"We understand that students need to be assessed," Martin went on, "but we feel teachers have other, better ways to measure students' learning."

Martin also sent the letter to a CPS official, who responded that Daisy could indeed opt out of MAP. Daisy will sit out MAP when it's given again later this year, and will opt out of a test called REACH as well.

A CPS spokesperson acknowledged to me that parents could opt their children out of tests, but then added in a written statement: "We encourage parents to fully understand the purpose of each assessment and the role that it plays in helping teachers and principals provide targeted academic supports to each student based on their individual needs. . . . Assessment is not the only tool but it is a critical one."

Nationally, opposition to standardized testing gained momentum in January, when teachers at a Seattle high school announced their refusal to administer MAP to their ninth graders. The teachers said in a statement that MAP "subtracts many hours of class time from students' schedules each year."

In Chicago in February, parents in a new coalition called More Than a Score passed petitions outside 37 schools calling for CPS to greatly cut back on standardized testing, and to disclose the cost of the 22 tests administered within the district. The coalition offers information on its website for parents considering opting out, including sample opt-out letters.

Because opting out occurs at the school level, CPS doesn't know how many kids have done it, a spokesperson says. Proponents allow that there are probably few students who have opted out thus far. They say that's in part because their effort has just begun.

"I learned so many life lessons from class that's not going to be shown through those boring blocks of text on standardized tests."—Skinner West eighth grader Daisy Maass

Standardized tests have long been the target of criticism for reasons such as the ones Daisy Maass and her mother voice. Now the antitest sentiment is growing for another reason: school districts are increasingly using MAP and other tests to evaluate teachers as well as students, a practice teachers' unions strongly oppose.

The Chicago Teachers Union is one of the members of the More Than a Score coalition and recently published a position paper called "Debunking the Myths of Standardized Testing." The paper pointed to research suggesting that student academic achievement is highly correlated with factors that teachers don't control, especially poverty and other products of racial inequality. It blasted the "data obsessed" model of the "corporate-led 'reform' movement," and recommended instead smaller classes, more resources for needy schools and communities, and the fostering of a "joyous, critical, inquiry-based and creative learning experience for students."

Daisy clearly follows the teachers' line of reasoning. "I consider myself a good test taker, but I know some really bright kids who just aren't, and they flop and feel bad about themselves. And then it reflects badly on the teacher—and it's not their fault.

"There are so many different ways to evaluate a teacher than just to throw their kids' test scores into a big average machine," she tells me. "I learned so many life lessons from class that's not going to be shown through those boring blocks of text on standardized tests."

[photo of CPS accountability officer John Barker]
  • Andrea Bauer
  • John Barker, the chief accountability officer for CPS, isn't concerned that standardized tests sometimes force teachers to teach to them. “My philosophy has always been that if it's a good test, teach to it.”

"Appropriate tests, appropriately delivered, are very helpful in the education process," says John Barker, the chief accountability officer for CPS. His office oversees CPS testing and other kinds of assessment. He was appointed to the post in December.

"Tests are all around us, in various forms," he continues. "You're actually testing me right now. I was watching the NFL combine last night, and these guys are running 40-yard dashes. If they haven't trained for that particular test, they're going to have a problem. But as you run the race in that particular test, you get better and you know more about yourself."

Barker's not concerned that standardized tests sometimes force teachers to teach to them. "My philosophy has always been that if it's a good test, teach to it."

He may be fond of standardized tests, but one of his first missions here is to figure out how CPS can cut back on them. Barker says his boss, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the new CEO for CPS, has asked him to evaluate all the standardized testing in the district and report to her about it by April 1. A CPS spokesperson says that ever since Byrd-Bennett's appointment in October, she's "received comments by parents and teachers expressing concern about overtesting of students." Barker says he's seeking to determine which tests are "most appropriate" and that the goal of his review is that it leads to less standardized testing in the district.

He says he's getting ideas for his report from other "stakeholders," among them leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union and members of parent groups that have been calling for less testing. CTU's leaders have been "very responsive and very helpful as we've begun these conversations."

In February, Barker invited members of Raise Your Hand, one of the parents' groups in the More Than a Score coalition, to meet with him as part of his review. Moments after the parents arrived at Barker's office, he told them he had to leave for another meeting. The parents spoke instead with the director of assessments. Wendy Katten, Raise Your Hand's director, says: "I got the sense that they'd been given this directive, and had no idea what to do about it. I didn't leave with any confidence."

The CTU likewise is skeptical about Barker's review. Carol Caref, research director for the union, notes that CPS increased its standardized tests "to an unprecedented number" last year. "And now they're talking about decreasing that high number. I'm not very excited about that. Are they really going to make substantial reductions, or are they just going to get rid of a couple of tests that they didn't have last year anyway? There needs to be a drastic change to this whole policy of reliance on these tests."

Caref adds: "CPS is making the final determinations. It's not like contract negotiation, where we both have to agree. And I think they have a very different approach from us about tests."

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan's education secretary, concerned about the "widespread public perception that something is seriously remiss in our educational system," created a commission to study the matter. The National Commission on Excellence in Education, looking for something seriously remiss, found it: SAT scores had plummeted in the U.S. between 1963 and 1980. The commission's 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."

Another government study eight years later found that the status of the nation's schools was far less alarming than A Nation at Risk had reported. The pool of students taking the SAT in the 1960s and 1970s had expanded to include more lower-ranking students, which largely accounted for the falling scores.

But that report received little attention. Since then, many Americans have been convinced that the nation has a significant education problem, and that schools and teachers need to be held more accountable. George W. Bush's 2001 education act, No Child Left Behind, furthered this sentiment. It mandated annual testing in reading and math from third to eighth grade, with sanctions for schools that didn't demonstrate sufficient progress. State spending on standardized testing leaped. Scores climbed significantly in math but not much in reading.

President Obama's principal education program, Race to the Top, is similarly built on accountability as demonstrated through standardized tests.

"Because of Race to the Top, most states are now evaluating teachers based in significant part on student test scores," the education historian Diane Ravitch wrote on her blog last fall. "There is more teaching to the test, more fear and anxiety associated with testing, more narrowing of the curriculum."

In Chicago, teacher evaluation before this school year was subjective, done largely by principals using a checklist and observing teachers in their classrooms. Under the new union contract negotiated during last fall's teachers' strike, the bulk of evaluation will still be based on classroom observation. But now a portion will be based on a "value added" measure—the change in student scores on tests given at the beginning and end of the school year. For most elementary school teachers, the value-added measure will account for 15 percent of their evaluations this year and next, and 20 percent in the 2014-2015 school year. For high school teachers, this year is a pilot year, and the value-added portion will be 15 percent next year and 20 percent the year after.

CPS says on its website that value-added scores have been found to be "the best single predictor of a teacher's student achievement gains in the future." But that's a quote taken out of context from a 2012 study commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The study went on to say that value-added "is often not as reliable as some other measures and it does not point a teacher to specific areas needing improvement."

The kindergarten teachers at Nixon spend the first few weeks of the year training their kids to work in groups "so that when we do the assessments, they leave us alone," teacher Alese Affatato says with a laugh.

"I was once bullish on the idea of using 'value-added methods' for assessing teacher effectiveness," Stanford professor Linda Darling Hammond wrote in Education Week last March. But she'd come to conclude that value-added measures were "seriously flawed" for evaluating individual teachers.

Darling-Hammond was an education adviser in Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, and she reportedly was a finalist for secretary of education—the job that went to CPS CEO Arne Duncan. Value-added models that are supposed to control for the socioeconomic background of students don't do it well, she wrote: "These test scores largely reflect whom a teacher teaches, not how well they teach." The better alternative was "rigorous, ongoing assessment by experts who review teachers' instruction" in the classroom.

Caref of the CTU says the focus on teacher evaluation is based on the notion that bad teachers are the problem in schools, and the solution is getting rid of them. "We reject that whole idea," she says. "There are plenty of things you can do to improve schools that wouldn't involve teacher evaluation at all."

In Chicago, she says, the crucial challenge is: "How do you overcome issues that students come to school with stemming from poverty?"

Poverty isn't going away soon. Karl Androes is an educator who thinks standardized tests can help in the meantime—though he has some significant reservations about them.

Androes is executive director of Reading in Motion, which in its 30-year history has partnered with numerous Chicago public schools to use dance, drama, and music to help young children learn to read.

Standardized tests have grown in sophistication as well as number, Androes says, and the information they provide can help teachers tailor their approach to students.

"A test might show, for instance, that four students in a classroom don't have a certain skill yet," he says. "Then a teacher can change her instructional plan to give those students exactly what they need."

The idea that a test can tell teachers something about their students that they don't know "goes against the common thinking of many teachers," Androes says. "I've heard them say, 'I don't need the test to tell me that stuff—I know what's going on in my classroom.'" But a classroom is a "hectic environment," he says, and even the best teachers miss things.

Better data is of little use, however, if teachers aren't trained in how to use it, Androes says—and in Chicago, that training has been lacking: "Some of the time teachers get the training they need, and a lot of the time they don't. And often, tests are given, and they're sent electronically somewhere, and the teachers never see them again."

Moreover, Androes is concerned about the time that testing takes away from teaching. Most learning occurs in a "practice and feedback loop," he says: the teacher says something, the child responds, and the teacher gives the child feedback. Since there's no immediate feedback during tests, the loop isn't closed, and instructional time is lost.

And instructional time, he says, "is the great unwashed secret of what it takes to produce better readers and higher-performing students. It's not just more minutes in the day that counts, but more minutes in the day being used for instruction. Testing takes away from that."

[photo of teacher Alese Affatato]
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Some of Alese Affatato's kindergarten students at Nixon elementary get stressed by all the testing, she says, "and I don’t think it's right for a five-year-old to feel stressed out."

"I like data," says Alese Affatato, a kindergarten teacher at Nixon elementary, on the northwest side. "It's important that we test students to know where they are. It can inform your instruction so that you can really target the skill that's being assessed."

But the amount of testing she's required to do now, she says, "is overwhelmingly too much."

There are 25 children in her classroom, and Affatato has to give most of her tests one-on-one. Occasionally she'll get the help of a substitute teacher, but "almost always we are testing while we are also supposedly teaching."

While she tests one child, her other students work in small groups. The kindergarten teachers at Nixon spend the first few weeks of the year training their kids to work in groups "so that when we do the assessments, they leave us alone," Affatato says with a laugh.

There's a series of four one-minute reading and writing tests to administer, four one-minute math tests, and a reading test on an iPad, all of which have to be given three times a year. For below-level students, there are weekly "progress monitoring" follow-up tests as well.

This year CPS added REACH to the testing regimen for teachers in kindergarten through second grade. Like MAP, it's given at the beginning and end of the year, and teachers will be evaluated on their students' improvement.

Even among teachers who like data and know how to use it, she says, "the question is, 'Do I even have the time to look at this data to inform my teaching?'"

Affatato recently voiced her concerns in an e-mail to CPS's assessment office, and received a sympathetic reply from a woman who worked there. "She said, 'I understand your concern—we are completely overwhelming our students with these assessments. Rest assured that we are looking into reducing the number.'"

Some of her students get stressed by all the testing, she says, "and I don't think it's right for a five-year-old to feel stressed out.

"We put up charts and posters to show them how much better they've become. But when students feel really discouraged because they're not making 'adequate progress,' it can be a deterrent to them really learning.

"I want my kids to love to learn," she says, "because then half my job is done."

Hannah Gold helped research this story.

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