New testing line-up: PLAN for 11th grade, TAP for 9th, 10th

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This fall, all Chicago public high school juniors will take a preliminary college-entrance exam, called the PLAN, regardless of whether they plan to go to college.

The purpose is twofold, school officials say: To help collegebound students and test-prep companies identify students’ strengths and weaknesses in preparation for the ACT college entrance exam and to help schools see where they need to beef up their curricula and instruction.

The board will administer the 115-minute, multiple-choice test in October. Then, it will give test-prep companies under board contract, such as Stanley Kaplan and the Princeton Review, copies of student profiles, which will supplement the companies’ own diagnostic tests. In addition, information about student interests and career paths, also a part of PLAN, will be shared with guidance counselors so they can guide students toward the courses they will need.

Powhatan Collins, who oversees high school restructuring, says, “As a system, we will be able to say, ‘This is what sticks out like a sore thumb from the PLAN,’ and we want to communicate that to our vendors.

“The PLAN is an assessment that measures student knowledge in our four core subject areas,” Collins adds. “We think this test is a better fit than the TAP and is more aligned to what students are doing.”

The PLAN mirrors the ACT and assesses student knowledge in English, math, reading and science reasoning. The TAP, short for Tests of Achievement and Proficiency, measures reading and math. Chicago will continue to use the TAP to determine which schools should be placed on probation.

“For students not taking the ACT, this test will still impact their daily instruction,” he adds. “We want this information to go to the principals and department chairs, and then to teachers so they can look for strengths and weaknesses and revamp the instruction program to address the problems.”

Kelley Hayden, a spokesperson for the ACT, agrees that the PLAN can be used for purposes other than ACT preparation. “However, a problem I see for Chicago is that it is a test designed for 10th-graders, and it is being used to test 11th-graders,” she says. “The PLAN uses 10th-grade norms. What happens if juniors take the test and the grades are no better or less than other 10th-graders who take the tests? That might raise some questions, I would think.”

Collins acknowledges that this could happen. “Yes, it’s possible our kids could score below the 10th-grade norms, but I think as we incorporate new standards, it will be better. We are already noting that our kids are better prepared when they come to high school. I am hopeful that as we continue to implement standards for our K-12 grades, the caliber of student will get better.”

About 70 public, private and parochial high schools in Chicago, including Chicago Vocational, Dunbar and King, already are using the PLAN. Statewide, the total is 675. However, most administer the tests to sophomores and use it only for ACT preparation, according to Hayden.

Statewide, 58 percent of 1998 public high school graduates had taken the ACT; in Chicago, that number was 55 percent. The average score for CPS students was 17.3, compared to 21.4 for the state and 21 for the nation. Beginning next year, the TAP will be given in 9th and 10th grades rather than 9th and 11th.

Philip Hansen, chief accountability officer, says the switch will enable the board to factor year-to-year improvement into probation decisions.

“In the past, when juniors took the TAP, we could not do a gain analysis from year to year,” he explains. “But now, because 9th- and 10th-graders will be taking it, we will be able to look at growth from year to year. … Say a school is low-performing, but their students have made 10-month gains. Then you have a school that is a higher-end school that has made five-month gains. Well, maybe that means the low-performing school is the one doing better. This will give us a better look at what schools are doing.”