CASE at Curie: One school’s experience with test trials

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As Chicago high schools prepared for the second round of CASE tests, Catalyst checked developments at Curie High School, whose scores on the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP) generally are a few points above citywide averages. The school system is developing the Chicago Academic Standard Exams to help ensure that teachers are teaching and students are learning the academic standards adopted by the Reform Board in 1997. The first tests, for second-semester freshman courses, were piloted last spring. Exams for first-semester courses for both freshmen and sophomores were piloted in January. Written by a dozen Chicago teachers, the exams eventually may count toward course grades and admission to special programs.

Four days into the post-holiday blizzard, Juan Troncoso’s English teacher at Curie High School has not returned to school, and Juan, a freshman, is getting worried. He wants to prepare for the upcoming CASE exams, but isn’t sure what to study.

“I’m just waiting for the teacher to come,” says Juan. “Hopefully she comes Monday.”

Teachers are uneasy, too.

All week, another English teacher Sarah Levine has been reviewing the board-assigned literature with her students, going over terms and working on analysis. But she isn’t sure what they will find on the CASE. She’s concerned that her students may not remember details of a text they read last quarter, but she is hopeful that the CASE will test higher-level thinking skills, the skills she feels she is supposed to be teaching. “I’m depending on them to focus on argument skills and writing skills—not just recall,” she says.

Recalling the multiple-choice questions from the freshman tests piloted last spring, English Department Chair Vera Wallace sees the CASE pushing teachers away from higher-order thinking skills. If a large proportion of the questions ask students to recall facts or draw simple inference, she says, the test result won’t show whether a student is capable of higher-level thinking. She worries that such an exam might encourage teachers to teach more facts and fewer skills.

For Curie, says Wallace, the challenge is incorporating the board-assigned texts into a thematic curriculum that stresses concepts like discrimination, and love and hate. That has been especially difficult at the freshman level, where texts range from Romeo and Juliet to The Pearl.

Philip Hansen, the board’s chief accountability officer, notes that exams in every subject have “constructed-response” sections, which require students to write a short essay or explanation. He also says that once the underlying programs of study are in place, teachers will see they have time for other activities. “As teachers move along this process, they will find it doesn’t take 40 weeks to teach the standards. There is that flexibility where teachers can do other work.”

Up in Curie’s Math Department, teachers have been going over practice tests in algebra and geometry all week, but not many are optimistic their students will do well. David Drymiller sits at his desk and shakes his head; he says the sample algebra test the board supplied is too hard. “Each problem is layered; each question tests five or six concepts,” he explains. “If students miss one of those ideas, they don’t know where to begin.”

Telkia Rutherford, the board’s manager of mathematics support, says that to improve student performance on the algebra exam, teachers need to develop an integrated curriculum that includes geometric concepts, probability and statistics.

Too difficult?

Margaret Small promotes just such a program, the Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP), but she, too, believes the sample algebra exam is too difficult. There are too many questions, and the equations are more complex than necessary to test each skill, she says. Developed with funding from the National Science Foundation, IMP is a four-year curriculum aimed at mixed-ability classes. “We’ve spent three months getting students talking, thinking, believing they can solve problems,” she says. “Then they’ll take this and think, ‘I can’t do math.'” Small believes that the exam should be designed like a driver’s test, measuring basic skills without being tricky or complex.

Last spring, only 25 percent of CPS freshmen passed the test.

Accountability Officer Hansen attributes that to a numberof factors: The programs of study were still in draft form; the exams carried no value for students; the exams were given the last week of school. “This year teachers have a better understanding of the expectations,” he says, adding that he expects better results.

In Curie’s Social Studies Department, Robert Zell is up in arms. Zell, a World Studies teacher, contends the board has “shirked its duty on the CASE.” He says it provided only a broad outline of the material to cover, a few sample questions and no inservice training. Plus, he says, he has only a history book while the board wrote a curriculum that goes beyond history. “I’m putting up an overhead and showing students the areas that will be on the test, and I’m telling them, we didn’t cover this because sources weren’t available.”

Pushing their lunches aside, other social studies teachers say the outline the board provided has far too much material to cover in depth. Department Chair Raymond Garson agrees that the board should establish standards and help schools reach them. “But they need to focus more,” he says. “What areas specifically are we going to cover?”

“There’s always been a large amount of material,” says Barbara McCarry, the board’s coordinator of social science support. “We need to figure out what teachers used to cover that they are now skipping, and what they are now adding. Next year, we’ll enter the new millennium. We’ll have the whole 20th century to decipher.”

Last spring, McCarry met with social studies teachers from across the city to get their reaction to the proposed course of studies. She said she’ll have another meeting to review how the first semester went.

Last year, social studies teachers said that sophomores did not arrive with a good understanding of history before the Civil War; as a result, the sophomore curriculum now includes brief reviews of earlier material. Another result of McCarry’s meeting with teachers is that World Studies takes a regional approach, and its exam gives students the option of writing on Africa or on Europe for each constructed-response question.

While Zell says he did not receive enough preparatory materials, the Office of Student Assessment says it sent a variety to every school. They included programs of study, a chart showing how many questions would be asked in each category and sample test questions. According to Hansen, a total of $850,000 was allotted to high schools for new textbooks this year.

Down in Curie’s Science Department, the concern is that the exam will require too much intuitive and critical thinking. Chemistry teacher Steve Samuels says that many students do not arrive with the ability to think step by step through a problem. Yet he believes CASE may lead classes in the right direction. “It’s difficult for our students to think intuitively,” he says. “But hopefully, I’ll see a question, and I’ll think, ‘I should have thought about teaching that way.'”

Once testing is under way, Samuels says he is pleased with the chemistry test. “It was well-written,” he explains. “I was impressed.” Although he is not yet sure how his students did, he says his class covered all the material that was on the exam.

Grading

Algebra teacher Drymiller says the exam was, as he expected, very difficult. He says terminology was a problem, too. He cites a question in which students were given an equation and asked to make it a “real life” problem, a direction many of his students didn’t understand.

Zell is trying to determine how some of the questions on the World Studies exam connect to the program of study. “That’s what we’ll spend some of our common planning time doing,” he says. “We’ll figure it out so we’re better prepared next time.” He hopes the board will provide a study guide next semester.

Levine says that on the English test, the constructed-response question did require students to do some analysis. But she takes issue with how the question was asked, contending it wasn’t clear to students what they were supposed to do. She says it also included words that students did not understand, such as “grapples.”

With the testing winding down, teachers are beginning to think about the next step—grading. The board has assigned each school a time to bring the multiple-choice sections in for immediate scoring. Teachers should have the scores in time for first-semester grades, which must be recorded by Jan. 29, a five-day extension from the original date. This year, schools may decide how to use the results. At Curie, the Math Department has decided not to figure them into grades. The English Department is allowing each teacher to decide individually.

Schools are grading the constructed-response questions on their own, using rubrics, or guides, provided by the board. Teachers may grade their own students, an issue that the board has struggled with. While that raises questions of validity, says Hansen, it also allows teachers to see the strengths and weaknesses of their students. The grading rules may change once CASE counts for something, he adds.

At Curie, each department is deciding on its own how to organize the process. In the Math Department, Chair Maryann Blaszak plans to have each teacher select a question and grade it across all classes. “That way, no teacher will say, ‘Well, I like Johnny Jones, and his answer is wrong, but I’m still going to give him a four,'” she explains. Blaszak set aside time on the testing days for grading, but she suspects teachers will not finish and may have to do it during free periods or take the work home.

Juan takes no chances

During the first pilot, the board did not require that teachers grade the constructed-response questions. As a result, according to Susan Ryan in the Office of Student Assessment, many of the tests were never graded.

As Catalyst goes to press, Curie teachers are still grading tests, and Juan Troncoso is waiting for his scores. Not all students are so concerned, he says. But a low score on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills landed Juan in summer school last year, and he isn’t taking any chances that a low score on CASE could send him back. This year, he wants a vacation.