Board keeps test data under wraps

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In an Aug. 21 news release, the School Board gave incomplete data about the number of students who met the test scores needed for promotion to the next grade, leaving the impression that more students had met the testing mark than actually had.

In a wrap-up of results from the summer Bridge program, the board reported that 74,168 students in 3rd, 6th and 8th grades had met “promotion criteria” in June, thereby averting mandatory summer school. What it didn’t report is that about 22,000 of those students were exempt from the testing program because they were in bilingual or special education classes; those students have different “promotion criteria.”

The Chicago Tribune, for one, did not catch the omission. In its Aug. 22 edition, it reported that the number of students meeting the promotion criteria was “based on how 3rd, 6th, and 8th grade students scored on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills last year.” The Sun-Times gave a more abbreviated summary of promotion results and did not include those numbers.

The board has yet to report publicly the number of students who met cutoff scores at the end of the regular school year. School officials subsequently supplied Catalyst with the number who were exempt from the requirement, making it possible to estimate the pass rates. (See chart on page 26.)

The board has refused to release other data needed to track the impact of its promotion policy. For example, it reported that only 3,483 of the 8,741 students who had been retained in elementary school at the beginning of last school year failed the tests a second time and were required to attend the summer Bridge program. But it has not reported what happened to the other 5,258, who may have left the system, been referred to special education or passed the tests in June.

Catalyst began requesting these and other data in July. Written requests to a number of officials, including Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas, have gone unanswered.

At press time, Karen Carlson, executive director of the Chicago Academic Accountability Council, said she had not received a response to her request for similar data on retained students. The council was created by the state Legislature in 1995 to serve as a quasi-independent watchdog on accountability matters; members are appointed by the School Board.

Prof. Anthony Bryk of the University of Chicago, who had long advocated such a body, says the fundamental problem is “a lack of clear standards for reporting” academic data. The council, he contends, has not yet fulfilled its central purpose: “Trying to set standards and making sure they’re implemented—that’s something the accountability council hasn’t taken on.”

Carlson sees the council’s role differently. “We don’t give guidelines. Our power is to recommend.”

The law says the purpose of the council “is to develop and implement a comprehensive system of review, evaluation, and analysis of school performance within the Chicago public schools.”