Board drops its required reading list

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Largely in response to teacher complaints, the School Board has dropped its required reading list for freshman and sophomore English courses. CPS will provide high school English teachers with a suggested reading list that includes such previously required works as “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Raisin in the Sun.” But teachers will be free to choose other material they deem “appropriate for their individual school,” explains Roberta Brooks of the CPS Department of Curriculum and Instruction. She adds, though, that teachers likely will continue using the previously required texts because schools already have purchased the books.

The curriculum change will affect the Chicago Academic Standards Exam (CASE), which tests students’ knowledge in core subjects. While some passages may be drawn directly from the suggested reading list, test questions will reflect the presumption that students have not previously read the text, according to Warren Jones, a CPS assessment specialist. Sample questions will be posted to the CPS web site “within a reasonable amount of time” before the next CASE, says Jones.

When CASE began pilot testing two years ago, questions for the freshman and sophomore English tests were drawn from the required reading list, which included a total of four plays, novels or nonfiction essays. Some questions addressed literary concepts illustrated by the core readings while others addressed content knowledge. Recently however, CPS officials became concerned that by limiting test questions to a small number of works, they would soon run out options.

Beginning this year, a percentage of students’ final grades will be based on CASE scores, says Carole Perlman, director of student assessment.

The concerns of faculty were a prominent factor in the decision to restructure the curriculum. Brooks says that the department organized several meetings to get feedback and distributed a survey. “A number of schools were opposed to core readings,” she reports. “Many people were not happy with the works selected.”

Michael Rychlewski, an English teacher at Schurtz High School, was one of them. “When you specify a specific text, essentially you’re shoving the book down students’ throats,” he says. “How does cramming [John Steinbeck’s novella] “The Pearl” advance learning? I don’t believe everyone should be required to read any one text. You’ve got to give teachers and students the space they need.”

“[The core readings model] wasn’t undoable, it just wasn’t educationally sound,” says Jay Rehak, an English teacher at Whitney Young High. “It didn’t flow with the rest of the curriculum.”

Some faculty expressed concerns regarding the board’s decision to implement the revised English CASE without piloting it first. “I wonder if it’s wise to put together a new test and have it count right away,” said Catherine Malebranche, English chair at Jones Magnet High School.