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The REACH test is a waste of time

To evaluate Chicago teachers, students have to take another standardized test.

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A few days after President Obama pledged to cut the number of standardized tests students take each year, high school art teacher Molly Pankhurst sat with her kids in a Chicago classroom, apologized for what she was about to do to them, and forced them to take another central-office-mandated test.

Obviously, the honchos at Chicago Public Schools missed the president's speech.

Pankhurst gave her students the REACH—which stands for Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago.

That's not to be confused with the two other standardized tests many CPS students take each year.

Those would be the PARCC—Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers—and the NWEA—Northwest Evaluation Association Measures of Academic Progress.

Sorry about all the acronyms. But they'll be on the test.

At this point, I'd like to absolve Mayor Emanuel of blame for the REACH.

That's because it's the school district's response to another acronym—a state law called PERA, or Performance Evaluation Reform Act.

In 2010, state Democrats—including Speaker Madigan and Governor Quinn—passed PERA in part to show they could be as tough on teachers as Republicans.

And they have to be tough on teachers because students in Illinois and the rest of the country score below students in countries like, oh, Denmark, and not because of poverty or discrepancies in school funding.

No, it's because teachers waste too much time goofing off in the teachers' lounge, drinking coffee, and bitching about the boss.

So, the law says, we have to hold teachers accountable by giving them rigorous annual evaluations.

Kids take the REACH at the start and the end of each school year, giving administrators two sets of scores to compare.

The higher a student's score rises in the second test, the higher CPS will rate the teacher. God help them if the score goes down.

Curiously, the REACH is graded by the teachers who give it. In other words, the teachers are evaluating themselves—sort of.

Now, I would never suggest that teachers rig the results by giving kids a low score in October and a high score in May—though that strategy worked well for Mayor Emanuel, who, after almost five years in office, still blames everything on Mayor Daley.

Anyway, Pankhurst (not her real name, by the way) was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the REACH test for high school art.

The test starts by telling students that their challenge is to "demonstrate the ability to convey meaning through the planning of a new art work."

Their first task is to answer the following question about their artwork in ten minutes: "What global or social issue do you choose? Identify three or more aspects that are specific to your chosen global or social issue."

Already I'm confused—I'm not sure what they mean by "aspects."

"Think of those as examples," explains Pankhurst. "So if you were doing an artwork on overtesting, you could say it wastes our time."

"And our money—like the TIFs."

"Yes."

You know I'll find any excuse to mention them.

From there, students have another ten minutes to "explain the image you could create to represent one or more aspects of your chosen global or social issue," and "provide three separate pieces of evidence that describe how these images relate to an aspect of your global or social issue."

By now I'm so confused with all the talk of aspect and global and social issues that I need a drink. And we're not even done with the test.

The students are required to draw a pencil sketch of their artwork. Then they have to answer three other questions, each of which asks them to cite three examples to justify their answers.

Apparently, the number three is really important. In the scoring guide, teachers are instructed to grade students by their ability to come up with three examples.

If students only provide one example, they get one point—and they're considered "below mastery."

If they come up with two examples, they get two points, which is "emerging mastery."

And if they give three examples, they achieve "mastery status."

In short, the REACH art test is really a test of a student's ability to do whatever he or she is told. Not exactly a criterion for becoming a great artist, but that's another story.

Looking on the bright side, the REACH is only given twice a year. But kids have to take the REACH in all of their subjects, so it adds up.

Alas, even the bright side is rather dark when it comes to the REACH.

"It's a waste of time, and I was apologizing to the kids, saying 'I'm sorry I have to do this to you,'" says Pankhurst. "Unfortunately, they're used to these kinds of things. They've been conditioned to filling in bubbles since they started school."

After teachers grade the REACH, they feed the scores to a computer, which eventually measure October's results against May's.

"It takes one 50-minute class period to give this test and then we grade them on our own time," says Pankhurst. "We give the test to our assistant principal, who keeps them on file for a year in case we get audited. It's stacks and stacks of paper—I've seen her carrying them around all week."

The REACH only accounts for about 30 percent of a teacher's rating—the rest of the rating is based on observations by the principal or assistant principal.

Well, if it's good enough for the teachers, it should be good enough for the mayor. I say we devise a REACH evaluation test for Mayor Emanuel and his school board appointees.

The first question: Explain why it's a good idea to give a $20.5 million no-bid principal consulting contract to a company run by crooks.

If they can't come up with three solid examples, it's time for an elected school board.  v

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