Closer to the classroom

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As in years past, the public debate over student assessment is being conducted largely by politicians, union leaders, advocacy groups and testing experts. To learn what those closer to the children think, Catalyst asked freelance education writer Alexander Russo to host a series of informal discussions with parents, teachers and students.

While deeply critical of many elements of Chicago’s current testing and accountability program, participants also believed the program has been key to improving Chicago’s public schools over the past four years. For all its shortcomings, the program is credited, often reluctantly, with having motivated students, parents and teachers to work harder. No one indicated any desire to return to the time when students were promoted regardless of their effort or achievement and schools were not pressured to help students succeed.

For nearly every criticism of the current system, participants offered at least one idea about how to address the problem. Many of the complaints and recommendations are ones that have been heard since the testing program began. Some are echoed in proposals under consideration by the School Board as Catalyst goes to press. Others are fresh ideas; they include allowing immediate retesting for students who fail the test, publishing uniform waiver guidelines and even eliminating 8th-grade graduation ceremonies.

PARTICIPANTS in the printed discussion

Participants in the focus groups were identified through a variety of education and community organizations and the recommendations of numerous educators. Some are affiliated with organizations that have been involved in the testing debate, but every effort was made to ensure that the majority of those participating were simply relating their own personal experiences and perceptions.

Students

Bria Dolnick recently graduated from Whitney Young Magnet High School and is headed to Beloit College. She is also a member of Organized Students of Chicago, which advocated boycotting tests last spring.

Jimmy Harvard is a sophomore honors student at Manley Career Academy High School.Willie Little is a freshman at Lincoln Park High School and will be in the honors program there. Marco Mendez is a sophomore at the Noble Street Charter High School who previously attended Kenwood Academy.

Anders Turpin is a senior at Whitney Young and a member of Organized Students of Chicago.Quintana Woodridge is a senior at Future Commons High School and a field coordinator for the Southwest Youth Collaborative.

Lachundra Young is a freshman at Manley who participates in the Street Level Youth Media Project.

Parents

Joe Balasa has a 7th-grader at Clissold Elementary School, the fourth of his children to attend the school. He has been LSC chair at Clissold for eight years.

Walter (“Slim”) Coleman has two children at Lozano Bilingual Academy, serves on the local school councils at Lozano and Wells Community Academy High School and is active in Parents United for Responsible Education.

Stacey Cooksey has three children attending Hoyne Elementary School; she formerly served on the LSC at Shoesmith.

Maria Lugo has two granddaughters who have attended Carpenter Elementary School and is a teacher’s assistant at Columbus. She is also involved with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.

Rochelle Moore has a son who is a sophomore at Crane High School and an 11-year-old at Victor Herbert Elementary School. She is a former LSC chair at Pope Elementary. Fabian Muentes has two children attending Inter-American Magnet School and is in his third year as an LSC member at the school.

Maria Mulcahy has two children at Lincoln Elementary School, one in 4th grade and the other in 3rd. Marcia Walsh has a child in 6th grade at Southerland Elementary and two other children who graduated from the school. She has been an LSC member for 11 years and is a staffer at the Beverly Area Planning Association.

Teachers

Shari Frost teaches 1st grade at Norwood Park Elementary and has been involved with the Chicago Foundation for Education.

Michelle Greenfield has been in the classroom for almost 10 years and currently teaches 1st grade at Burley Elementary School.

Susan Kajiwara-Ansai is a teacher and literacy coordinator for several Chicago elementary schools. She is a Golden Apple Award winner.

Debbie King has been a classroom teacher for nine years and most recently taught at Finkl Academy Elementary. This year, she is teaching 5th grade at Burley. Joyce Lipner has taught 7th- and 8th-grade science at Onahan Elementary School; this year, she is the school’s mathematics-science-technology coordinator. She is a member of the LSC and a CPS teacher mentor.

Heidi Luebs teaches 7th- and 8th-grade science at Burley and has participated in the Rochelle Lee Fund. Erin Roche teaches 7th- and 8th-grade language arts at Sabin Magnet School and has been involved with the Rochelle Lee Fund and the Chicago Area Writing Project. He was a Fullbright Scholar and also has participated in the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Jeraldyne Saines teaches 7th- and 8th-grade language arts and co-founded Nia Elementary, a small school, in 1992. Jacqueline Sanders teaches 6th grade at Nia, where her courses include cultural awareness, economics and government.

Michelle Smith teaches middle and high school math and is the lead teacher at ACT Charter School.

Motivates students, parents

“Before Paul Vallas’ decision about [8th-grade] graduation, talking to students and parents was different. … It didn’t matter that the kids were graduating with 4- or 5-point scores.” (8.8 is the national average for an 8th-grader.)

Jeraldyne Saines, teacher

“As an 8th-grade teacher, I see less and less kids in front of me that you think after the first week, How did you get to 8th grade? Years and years ago, it would be about half of them that were at a totally different level than the others.”

Joyce Lipner, teacher

“It’s good if the kids know that they have to study if they’re going to pass. It gives me more confidence in the system if I know that the kids genuinely have to learn in order to get a diploma.”

Marcia Walsh, parent

“If people haven’t gotten to the level that they need to get to, then they shouldn’t be passed to the next grade.”Bria Dolnick, recent high school graduate

“The first year, parents nor students took it very seriously. …But then we had one boy who had to come back. That sent an impact through that school like you wouldn’t believe.” Jeraldyne Saines, teacher

“Though I would redesign that test because too many kids are not passing the test, it is keeping the kids on the ball. I really love what Paul Vallas is doing—keeping the kids in school and in their grades.”

Rochelle Moore, parent (But not all of them).

“I get phone calls every day from parents who are trying to remove their kids from the CPS system because of the test scores. … People realize their kids are not going to make it and are running from the issue and trying to get into a charter school as a result.”

Michelle Smith, teacher

“By 6th grade, we’ve found that many parents weren’t as responsive. We had one parent who said, ‘I’m not interrupting my summer.’ He had a whole year to get this done. The parent said, ‘Fine, let him repeat.’ I don’t know how to reach those parents.” Jeraldyne Saines, teacher

Provides help and second chances

“I think summer school is good. You [went] for a reason: You just didn’t give it your best. You didn’t try.”

Marco Mendez, student

“Sometimes going to summer school is good for summer students. They have a chance to get away from kids who may have influenced them during the year.”

Quintana Woodridge, student

“If a kid has to go to Bridge for the summer, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing.”

Michelle Greenfield, teacher

“We had a pre-Bridge program where the year before they were going to be in a benchmark year, some of the kids who were at risk were getting extra help.” Marcia Walsh, parent

Gives a clear snapshot

“It checks the level of where the student is at.”

Marco Mendez, student

“The one positive change that I have seen over the five years is that they’ve implemented inservices for teachers prior to testing. Basic testing information is now at your disposal. …They even have these cute little manuals now.”

Michelle Smith, teacher

“I like the fact that every year I get a score that shows me how much growth my child has had in various subjects. … After a year’s worth of time, there needs to be some yardstick, some measurement tool that allows you to see how much your child has been able to grasp in that particular time frame.”

Stacey Cooksey, parent

“Tests are good to measure a moment in time, and also to measure against a moment in time a year later.”

Joe Balasa, parent

Motivates teachers

“They [teachers] were more like a parent. They wanted you to pass. This was a big change in attitude.”

Lachundra Young, student

“We want to be accountable.”

Michelle Greenfield, teacher

“Mr. Vallas, he might or might not be the best person in the world, but at least the man says what he means and does what he says.”

Joyce Lipner, teacher

“The problem in the past is that kids were being passed on. We weren’t thinking of multiple measures.”

Shari Frost, teacher

“It is good to have a universal standard, where everybody takes the test, and they all get the same thing.”

Erin Roche, teacher

“I know that the teachers want those kids to pass. They work very hard with them. It’s made them really give the kids who are at risk extra help.”

Marcia Walsh, parent

“Before, you went into your little room, and you did the best job you could. Maybe the person next door did the same thing, maybe not. There was no way of knowing. It put increased pressure on us to perform, but it also meant that I couldn’t sit back and do nothing. My students are now depending on me to present them with information that’s going to be needed at the end of the year. It’s done a lot to create a balance in what goes on in the classroom.”

Jeraldyne Saines, teacher

Insulates teachers

“[Before,] your administration had to agree to retain kids. They looked at retention rate as something they didn’t want. They would say, Too bad, they’re graduating, get them out of there.”

Joyce Lipner, teacher

“I’m tired of other teachers who don’t do anything and get away with it, and I’m tired of kids who just slack off. It’s great that you can say you didn’t score high enough.”

Erin Roche, teacher

“Before it was subjective. This is very objective, whether I like it or not. If your child does not do this, then these are the options I have. That was not in place before.”

Jeraldyne Saines, teacher

“I don’t feel like I’m the bad guy any more. There’s something that parents don’t argue with that. I’m glad for that.”

Joyce Lipner, teacher

“Testing isn’t going anywhere. It’s a job thing, it’s a college thing.”

Michelle Smith, teacher

Has diagnostic benefits

“My friend has a learning disability in English and math, and no one figured that out until he took the ITBS for the 8th grade. They looked at that, they looked at his disciplinary record, and they realized he has a learning disability. It wasn’t until they looked at all that that they could figure it out.”

Anders Turpin, student

“Let’s say only 10 percent of the 2nd-grade children are reading at grade level every year. These children are going into a Bridge grade, and there’s something that we need to do to get more of those children reading at grade level.”

Stacey Cooksey, parent

Use multiple measures

“To put everything on one test, or two tests, is so insane to me—especially when we’re supposed to be making individualized decisions about our kids every day and meeting expectations and learning styles and everything.”

Michelle Greenfield, teacher

“They’re sending tens of thousands of kids to summer school each year, based on a test score that is pretty arbitrary.”

Anders Turpin, student

“The test is good to categorize and see how your levels are, but you should look more into the grades of the students and their potential, combined.” Quintana Woodridge, student

“The teachers should be allowed to say that this child was doing great and should be allowed to go on. … Maybe the teachers as a whole could help form some sort of criteria.” Fabian Muentes, parent

“I am insulted that the [ITBS] test should count when I say, ‘I’m sorry you only got a 55 percent in your class.’ My input should be just as valuable. Otherwise just put a robot in there.”

Erin Roche, teacher

“They should try and even out [testing and classroom grades]. That’s a good way to encourage students to give their best. At my old school, if you were absent more than 20 times, you had to go to summer school no matter how well you tested.”

Marco Mendez, student

Accentuate the positive

“Accountability should be not just holding a gun to someone’s head and saying from this one factor, ‘You’re all terrible, and you’re all going to lose your jobs, and you’re not going to leave here until you shape up in this one area.”

Bria Dolnick, recent graduate

“What [the current retention policy] does to the morale of some of the most excellent teachers is really horrendous. …This is one of the reasons why we lose good teachers.”

Jackie Smith, teacher

“If I were Paul Vallas, I think that one of the major issues that I would have is the way this whole retention thing is packaged. … Right now, it’s a very punitive system. …Children learn different things at different rates. That needs to be accepted and respected.”

Michelle Smith, teacher

Use different tests

“I’m all for criterion-referenced [tests], but that’s not what we’ve got. What we’ve got is a norm-referenced test.” [Criterion-referenced tests measure attainment of a standard; norm-referenced tests compare students to each other without reference to a standard.]

Susan Kajiwara-Ansai, teacher

“I’m not real interested in how fast kids read, which essentially is what the tests tell me. I’m really interested in whether they comprehend what they read. I’m not sure that one 40-minute test gives me that information. Actually, it really doesn’t.”

Michelle Smith, teacher

Look at growth

“As opposed to their looking at the percentage ‘at or above’ grade level, what I would like to see them do is look at growth. Is this kid growing? No one’s given credit for that.”

Michelle Smith, teacher

Change the schedule

“Tests should be at the end of the year. It’s silly to have it May 10th or so. What do I do with my 8th-graders for three or four weeks [after the test]? It’s not fair to them, and it’s not fair to teachers.”

Erin Roche, teacher

“You get the letter from the high school telling you that you’re accepted and when to come up to sign up, but you don’t even know if you’ve passed the test.” [High-school admissions are based largely on 7th-grade results.]

Lachundra Young, student

“Let them try [to pass the ITBS] again the next day, like with the Constitution exam.” Rochelle Moore, parent

“In 8th grade, not only do they take the ITBS and the ISAT. In a lot of cases my kids have to take high school entrance exams. …These kids are subjected, starting in December and going until May, to a myriad of tests. I think there just has to be a better way.” Joyce Lipner, teacher

“Eliminate ITBS during ISAT years. They don’t need both. One test is enough. You don’t make people grow by measuring them more often.”

Shari Frost, teacher

Add performance incentives

“If the school has to emphasize testing, it takes away from their teaching things beyond 2 plus 2.”

Fabian Muentes, parent

“In the name of high-quality schools, we’re putting all this energy into these tests, and we’re not necessarily getting the product of a high-quality school, or kids that are more educated.”

Bria Dolnick, recent graduate

“Eighth-grade graduation is such a big, huge deal in Chicago. I think [the ceremony] should be eliminated, because it just highlights our low expectations for these kids. We have to throw a big party for these kids because they might not make it through high school graduation.”

Heidi Luebs, teacher

“Most of the things we go over in my honors class, the regular kids don’t go over. They never even saw it. The only things that they go over are the stuff that is going to be on the CASE or the TAP test.”

Jimmy Harvard, student

“The way it’s set up now, it’s like welfare: the worse you do, the more money that gets poured into it. It’s never set up to reach for the stars.”

Joe Balasa, parent

Recast summer school

“Summer school isn’t really a healthy place. It hurts self-esteem to go to summer school, no matter for what reason.”

Anders Turpin, student

“I pulled my son out of the summer program he was assigned to after the first day, when it was clear that the school wasn’t ready to deal with the students who were coming.”

Maria Mulcahy, parent

“I taught 3rd-grade Bridge last summer, and it was the most horrific experience of my life. It was horrible.” (For one, she objects to the prescribed curriculum, which she says was beyond many children’s levels.)

Heidi Luebs, teacher

“It’s unfortunate that summer school is still viewed as a negative. Especially now that there are so many programs that are summer based, where children may attend for whatever reasons.”

Stacey Cooksey, parent

“[The summer school option] should be at every grade. That’s not punitive, that’s helping them. That’s giving them what they need before they get to that point where they can’t go through graduation.”

Michelle Greenfield, teacher

Make waiver criteria clear

“They asked for teacher input on the waiver, but it’s only on paper. When we submitted those waivers the first year, they were ignored. We walked them down to the region, and they were faxed back in a half hour with a check on ‘no.’ Nobody read through my five waivers.”

Susan Kajiwara-Ansai, teacher

“Jimmy’s school didn’t let us know. When I asked the principal for a waiver, she told me that she wasn’t giving them out. …The reason why I know a little bit more is because I was the chairperson of the LSC.” Rochelle Moore, parent

“It’s a very politicized process, depending on where the school is, what the principal’s relationship is with [the regional office]. We’ve never seen any objective criteria for what is required.”

Slim Coleman, parent

“They have to be real careful that [waivers are] being done for the right reason. The board would have to make sure it’s not abused.”

Marcia Walsh, parent

Clean up the CASE

“On the chemistry test, they said, ‘Look at this graph and tell what the measurements are.’ There was no graph.”

Anders Turpin, student

“They give you a question, and then you work it out, and sometimes they don’t even have the answer on the paper.”

Quintana Woodridge, student

Push enrichment

“I worked with a school where, whenever there was a half day, they used that half day for practice testing. You think of how much instructional time is lost to this. They’re spending all their time getting ready to take this test.”

Shari Frost, teacher

“At our school, they kind of used the tests as like the Bible.”

Willie Little, student

“What’s the use of buying these books when they are going to say this or this is going to be on the ITBS test? If you’re going to get a book, just buy a book that’s all the stuff that’s going to be on the ITBS.” Jimmy Harvard, student

“My teacher had to change her curriculum to teach us everything that was on the CASE exam. Every year, they have a new test for me, or two new tests. Next year it will be worse for them.”

Anders Turpin, student

Motivate, support teachers

“The majority of teachers are still not being reflective and are not feeling the pressure. I’ve worked with lots of teachers, and I have had neighbors who have zero percent at or above grade level and from 8:30 to 2:30 have no problem with that.”

Debbie King, teacher

“Teacher recertification is something that was talked about but hasn’t happened. Everybody that’s in front of the children, they’re not necessarily top-notch at this point.”

Stacey Cooksey, parent

Align tests

“That test is not based on what that kid learned in school. … A lot of stuff on that test they’re not introduced to within the school year.”

Rochelle Moore, parent

“We have to make sure that what we cover in the classroom is what is on the Iowas, so that by the time the testing is done, it’s not a problem for them, not this big monster.”

Stacey Cooksey, parent

“The CASE [Chicago Academic Standards Exam] had nothing to do with what we were learning. The first exam was on DNA, and we didn’t cover DNA in biology until later.”

Marco Mendez, student

Reach out to parents

“Why is it that I couldn’t see what was on this test? I can’t see what you’re going to test? If the doctor is going to examine my child, I get to be in the room with my child.”

Rochelle Moore, parent

“Certain people in the administration [at my old school] didn’t want parents past ‘this point.’ Literally we had these yellow horses that say, You can’t go in there.”

Debbie King, teacher

“At one school I work with, 33 percent of the kids who were identified for early intervention Bridge were no-shows [after the first couple of days]. There’s another portion of kids who were identified but didn’t even show up the first or second day.”

Susan Kajiwara-Ansai, teacher