Board asserts new power over schools

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Accountability—a $5-word that simply means holding schools responsible for student achievement—has taken center stage in the Chicago Public Schools.

When the Legislature overhauled the Chicago School Reform Act last spring, it gave the new School Reform Board of Trustees more authority to hold schools accountable. (See story online in Catalyst, September 1995.) Only two months into its tenure, the board is asserting these new powers.

For one, so-called “intervention teams” from central office have begun visiting each of the 149 schools that failed to meet state achievement goals for the past three years. The administration plans to pair up the schools with universities and other institutions to help them improve; so far, the schools say they welcome the attention.

Second, the board recently passed a new “educational crisis” policy that allows for swift action against seriously dysfunctional schools. Immediately, it took advantage of the policy to rid Prosser Vocational High School of its principal, assistant principal and local school council. And investigations are underway in at least two other schools.

Finally, the Office of Accountability has just begun the task of crafting a new system of performance reviews for all schools. The new system is meant to replace the state’s Quality Reviews, which have been scrapped in Chicago this year. (The Illinois State Board of Education is revamping the Quality Review program and gave school districts the option of waiving reviews this year; only Chicago took the option.)

A 39-member Accountability Task Force, comprised of principals, administrators, outside experts and reform activists, will offer their ideas on how the new system should look; the task force has just begun holding meetings. An Accountability Council, comprised of business, community and academic leaders, has yet to be appointed but, by law, is supposed to help design the system. The council is to be appointed by the School Reform Board and the Illinois State Board of Education.

“The primary goal will be to help schools improve,” says Joseph Hahn, director of school improvement, who is heading up efforts to set up the review process. The state’s Quality Reviews, he says, have been little more than “an academic exercise” and have done little or nothing to help schools focus on specific educational goals and how to attain them.

As with the Quality Reviews, though, schools would undergo the new reviews once every four years. The framework for the process will be familiar to at least some schools: “Pathways to Achievement,” a process for self-analysis developed under former Supt. Argie Johnson, will be used to help schools analyze their weaknesses and develop strategies to overcome them. (See story.)

The Pathways concepts “are things you have to have in place to have an effective school,” says Chief Accountability Officer Patricia Harvey. “Research has proven it over and over.”

Schools’ use of money will also play a role in how performance is judged, says Harvey. “We’ll be looking at how schools are using funds to support their improvement plan.” For instance, if a plan emphasizes improvement of writing skills, “we would expect to see that reflected in the budget,” through spending on teacher training or curriculum development.

Under one scenario for the process itself, teams of experienced principals, teachers and administrators would spend up to a week visiting schools, talking to staff and parents, and observing classrooms.

Classroom observations are important because they help schools “focus on teaching and learning . . . and see where to put resources,” says task force member David Green, an accountability expert who is helping the state redesign its system. Previously, Green helped spearhead the design of new accountability systems in New York State and his native England.

Performance incentives also are important, Green adds. “If you’re always just bad-mouthing people, you shouldn’t be surprised if they have no incentive to do better.”

Monetary incentives and public recognition for schools that improve are key components to the accountability systems in Dallas and the State of Kentucky, for example. (See online stories: Texas and Kentucky.) In Chicago, a proposed “Exemplary Schools” program would give more spending leeway and other decision-making power to schools that increase achievement, says Chief Educational Officer Lynn St. James. Financial incentives are possible but, St. James notes, “As you know, we are short on money.”

Whatever the final blueprint, it’s a virtual certainty that test scores will play a central role in how school performance is judged. What’s not certain, however, is what test, or combination of tests, the system will use. Options include multiple-choice, basic skills tests, like the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills; written tests with multiple-choice and open-ended questions that aim to measure reasoning and analytical thinking; portfolios of student work; and performance assessments that might have students, say, give a speech or perform an experiment.

The testing issue got a brief flurry of media attention when Board President Gery Chico called publicly for a “back-to-basics, no baloney” approach in which standardized testing would start in kindergarten. However, St. James says, “I doubt very much that will happen,” noting that early childhood experts advise against giving standardized, paper-and-pencil tests to children before 3rd grade. (The Reform Act gave schools the option not to administer the Iowa Test of Basic Skills to 1st- and 2nd-graders, but 80 percent of youngsters in those grades are still tested, reports John Easton, the board’s research director.)

Scores on standardized multiple-choice tests “are important to society,” acknowledges Harvey. “They’re what the city, the country uses to rate schools. What Chicago is looking for is something that will tell us more.”

Green agrees that more sophisticated tests are needed. “If you want children to learn to solve problems, make sure the assessments allow students to show they know how to do something, not just get the right answer. It’s an old saying—you need to know how you got there in order to get there again.”

St. James and Harvey are both proposing performance assessments. St. James helped pioneer them as principal of Lindblom High, one of the city’s top-performing high schools. “We need tests not only of content, but of application of content,” says St. James. “Would you want a pilot to fly you from here to California if all he had done was pass a test? Wouldn’t you want him to have actually flown somewhere before?”

Critics of performance assessments, however, counter that they have no proven track record. Indeed, at least five states are backing away from such tests because of concerns over their validity, according to an article in the Aug. 2 Education Week. At the same time, at least two others—Kentucky and Maryland—are trying to fine-tune them.

Performance assessments are fine at the local school level, says Barbara Sizemore, dean of the College of Education at DePaul University and an influential voice at Pershing Road. But launching them systemwide, she says, would take the focus away from standardized, multiple-choice tests, which Sizemore notes are the “gatekeepers” to higher education and the professions. Children must learn to master such tests because, she points out, “Colleges all require the SAT, the ACT.”

Herbert Walberg, professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says it “would be a grave mistake” to scrap the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills because they are a known, trusted measurement.

Proponents of performance assessment cite the need to test children’s higher-order thinking skills, but Walberg contends that Chicago needs to emphasize the basics. “If you don’t know addition and subtraction, you’re not going to be able to do calculus. And what’s so profound about 3rd-grade arithmetic?”

New assessments?

Under former Supt. Argie Johnson, a panel of local and national testing experts proposed making the city’s Learning Outcomes the centerpiece of a new assessment system. The outcomes, which are aligned with Illinois’ general learning goals, were written by teachers under a jointly sponsored venture of the previous administration, the Chicago Teachers Union and the widely respected Council for Basic Education in Washington, D.C.

The proposal is still on the table, Harvey says. The Joyce Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation would finance much of the cost of developing the new tests, says Warren Chapman, Joyce’s education program officer.

“If they [the board] don’t make the move, they’ll be criticized on two fronts—for scores [on the current tests] not going up, and for having a school system that’s antiquated,” says Chapman, a strong proponent of the proposal.

The proposal calls for:

1. New assessments in “benchmark” grades 4, 8 and 11, consisting of multiple-choice questions, essays, and portfolios and other performance assessments.

2. New standardized tests in math and reading for grades 3 through 8 and 11. These tests also would be geared to the Learning Outcomes, and would replace the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. An equating study would be done to make results comparable to the Iowa. The panel also proposed “consolidating” questions from the Illinois Goals Assessment Program (IGAP) tests with the new local tests, to reduce the number of exams children take, says Tony Bryk, an education professor at the University of Chicago, who headed the panel.

3. Local assessments. Clusters of schools would be encouraged to develop their own tests to use in those grades in which children do not take part in citywide tests.

Walberg, who served on the panel, doubts that the school system has the “technical savvy” to devise new standardized tests and equate them with the Iowa, or to construct valid performance assessments.

For the standardized tests, Bryk says, the district could, basically, “lift” questions from the numerous tests already in use. “Actual test construction is not a problem. It’s a matter of being very clear about what you want to measure, then going to a test publisher and telling them what you want.”

As for performance exams, Bryk concedes that designing them is more problematic. “Standardized tests have been around 50 years. They’re at a much more sophisticated place than other newer forms of assessment … You can’t do only performance-based tests, even if you could convince people they’re the way to go.”

Bryk and Chapman also point out that new federal Title I legislation requires school districts to devise new forms of assessment by 1997, so that children’s achievement is not judged solely by the results of standardized tests. “This is something the board would have to do anyway,” says Chapman.

Judging teachers

Whatever tests the system ends up using, it’s likely that teacher evaluations will be based, at least in part, on how well students perform on them. St. James, for one, is championing the move as a way to hold teachers accountable.

The Dallas school system is trying out the idea this year; the top 40 percent of teachers will be exempt from evaluations for two years, while the bottom 10 percent will be sent for training in the areas where their students have the worst performance.

“I think it’s necessary,” says Sizemore. “If teachers are allowed to blame parents, poverty, violence, single-female-headed families, or what have you-they’ll never teach children. I’ve been in the field for years, and in schools where teachers are held accountable, achievement goes up.”

Not surprisingly, the Chicago Teachers Union doesn’t like the idea. Judging teachers on test scores “doesn’t take into account the human element [of teaching], the changes that may be occurring” in the classroom, says CTU spokesperson Jackie Gallagher.

The union contract also calls for a system of peer review to go into effect next year; so far, no specifics have been developed. Last winter, Mayor Richard M. Daley was promoting peer review as a way to improve teaching.

When the new accountability system is up and running, it should yield some quick results, says Green; statistics such as school attendance, for instance, ought to improve “pretty quickly.”

But he cautions against the tendency of corporate leaders, politicians and other public figures to demand large-scale improvement overnight. In fact, corporate history itself teaches that that’s not feasible, Green points out: “Look how long it took [CEO] George Fisher to turn around Motorola, or David Kearns to turn Xerox around—the better part of a decade.”