Glaring omission on test scores

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“You’ll have to go back to ancient history to see three consecutive years’ growth in elementary school test scores,” Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas said in announcing the good news, that elementary reading test scores are up for the third year in a row. The upward trend began in 1991 but has been strongest since Mayor Richard M. Daley was given control of the school system in 1995. Freshmen scores are up, too. In that grade, there had been nothing but bad news until Vallas, Gery Chico et al came on board. Further, there are fewer students scoring in the bottom quartile, or bottom 25 percent of the national sample. The only bad news in the preliminary 1998 test results is that reading scores for high school juniors slipped a notch, continuing the generally flat trend since 1990.

There are a number of reasons for the test score advances. With the board’s expansion of after- school programs and summer school, students are getting more instruction. With the threat of probation for schools and retention for students, many schools are working both smarter and harder. High schools, for example, finally are embracing a remedy that has been staring them in the face for decades; they’re incorporating reading instruction into the curriculum and hiring reading specialists. In its test score press release, the Reform Board credited programs and people. However, there was a glaring omission: Student retention, which inflates scores.

Last school year, some 15,000 students in four grades (3rd, 6th, 8th and 9th) were forced to repeat a grade because their test scores fell short of board-imposed minimums. As a result, the next grades up (4th, 7th, 9th and 10th) were spared the lowest-scoring students. Not surprisingly, come test- taking time, the 4th, 7th and 9th grades did the best job “moving” kids out of the bottom quartile (10th-graders don’t take the tests). At the same time, the test scores in 3rd, 6th, 8th and 9th grades benefitted from having thousands of students (those retained) get another year of instruction before taking the tests again. Indeed, 9th grade, which is the only grade both to have been spared the lowest scorers and to have students repeat, posted the largest gains of all. And 5th and 11th grades, the only grades that so far have been unaffected by student retention, did the worst; 5th grade had the lowest gain, and 11th grade dropped slightly. (See charts on page 26.)

So, how much of the test score gains reflect increased student achievement, and how much reflect testing technicalities? As Catalyst writer Elizabeth Duffrin explains in the lead story of our “What Matters Most” series this month, it’s nearly impossible to answer that question through the Reform Board’s current testing program. Even so, the board should have leveled with the public and explained that this year’s scores, to some extent, ran ahead of actual achievement. Simple honesty requires it. Beyond that, the politics of school improvement require a Caesar’s wife approach to statistics. If you’re selective with the numbers, you’ll eventually get caught. And that would threaten the growing confidence in the system, which itself contributes to both school improvement, and citizen and legislative support.

ABOUT US I am pleased and proud to report that the work of an excellent staff won Catalyst a first place in the newsletter category of the 1997 Peter Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, Chicago’s most prestigious journalism contest. Here’s some of what the judges said: “Catalyst blends strong reporting, informed analysis, excellent graphics and an appealing design to create an outstanding newsletter. The publication knows its territory—the Chicago public school system inside out and provides comprehensive coverage of the policies, people and programs within its editorial purview. … In addition to its fine journalism, Catalyst also serves as a calm but firm advocate for better education for all Chicago’s students.”

In addition, Catalyst Online won an honorable mention. To put it mildly, we lost to worthy competitors: the online edition of the Chicago Tribune, which took first, and the Web sites of CNN-Chicago and CLTV.