Common ground on testing

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Creating a system of student assessment and school accountability is the single most important action Chicago’s new school administration will take to affect student learning. The need to proceed openly and deliberately, and then explain the final decision fully and widely can’t be overemphasized.

It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to happen quickly—as can be seen from our articles about school accountability in the State of Kentucky and the City of Dallas, as well as our article about differences of opinion in Chicago. However, as we listen to the conflicting opinions, we see room for compromise.

First, Barbara Sizemore is right. Children do need to know how to take standardized, multiple-choice tests because that’s what this society uses as the ticket to higher education and many jobs. So schools need to teach students that these tests are important. However, every college entrance and job exam we’re familiar with requires reasoning. Both the ACT and SAT are aptitude tests that involve ways of thinking and approaching problems. Even the police sergeant’s exam requires application of knowledge. A school accountability system that relies only on tests of basic skills isn’t going to serve Chicago’s children very well in the long run.

So, the proposal developed under the former administration to create new paper-and-pencil tests that would use multiple-choice and open-ended questions to measure basic and higher-order skills is compelling. As for performance assessments and portfolios of student work, the message from other states is: Go slow. In addition to the technical challenges of creating such assessments, there’s the challenge of building public understanding and support. As we reported last May, education officials in the State of Oregon regret that they didn’t do a better job of explaining the state’s new—and now controversial—performance-based assessments to the public. Perhaps at the outset, any new forms of assessment ought to be an option for Chicago schools, which the board could encourage through incentives.

If the administration moves ahead with designing new paper-and-pencil tests, the Iowa could be administered, at the outset, to a sample of students at several grade levels; that way, the public could see how the new scores compare to scores on an established, national test. The Iowa could remain an option for entire schools too, in case parents want to see how their own children’s scores compare.

Before getting into the technicalities of designing and administering any new tests, however, the school system has to decide what children should be learning. It’s easy to say children should know how to read, write and do math and science. But those statements aren’t very helpful for teachers who are trying to figure out what to do for their pupils. The previous School Board adopted a set of learning outcomes for grades 4, 8 and 11 that were developed jointly with the Chicago Teachers Union. (A sample is online here.) Some schools, such as Locke (profiled in this issue), have expanded on these outcomes to identify objectives for every subject at every grade level. If the new board doesn’t like these outcomes, fine; it can revise them. But to get the most out of any assessment and accountability system, it has to start with some kind of learning goals.

ABOUT US It is with regret that we remove Michael Klonsky’s name from our masthead with this issue. Mike, who has been a contributing editor to Catalyst for the past 3½ years, has become the new director of the Small Schools Workshop, based at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He succeeds Pat Ford, who is heading up the ABC Youth Center in Lawndale. Of course, the fact that Mike no longer works for Catalyst doesn’t mean our readers won’t hear from him. (See Austin High story online.)