Probation stuns schools that raised state test scores

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On the first day of school, Allen Stringfellow, principal of Dodge Elementary School in East Garfield Park, called his staff together for some great news: Dodge had worked its way off the state’s academic “watch list.”

For three years in a row, fewer than half of Dodge students had met state goals on the state IGAP tests, which put the school on the watch list. Further, the percentage of students who met the goals had been declining, which prompted the Chicago School Reform Board as well to put Dodge on remediation. But in 1996, the percentage shot up 19 points, topping the 50 percent mark. So long, watch list.

Three weeks into this school year, however, Dodge got news of a far different sort. “I got the call,” a somber Stringfellow told his faculty. “We’re on probation.” Teachers sat in stunned silence, he recalls, until one finally asked, “How could this be?”

“We worked so hard, and they [the School Board] pulled this switch on us,” Stringfellow says later. “But what can we do?” he adds heavily. “We have to regroup and do it again.”

The “switch” is the School Board’s surprise decision to go back to an old standard to identify schools for remediation and probation. Until the board’s recent announcement that 109 schools had been put on probation, both city and state school officials had focused schools on the state IGAP tests. IGAP scores are published in school reports and in newspapers; if they’re low enough for long enough, schools go on the state’s watch list. And in Chicago, the Reform Board used IGAP scores to put schools on remediation last year.

This year, however, the board used the reading section of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and, in high schools, the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP) to put schools on remediation and probation. With a few exceptions, schools where less than 15 percent of the students scored at or above national norms were put on probation.

“If students and the school system are to be judged successful, a nationally normed standardized test should be the assessment,” says Phillip Hansen, the board’s intervention director.

Still, the board gave schools no warning of the change. As a result, dozens of schools that had made progress on the IGAP wound up on probation, a designation that carries the threat of principal and teacher replacement, among other penalties. While Dodge saw IGAP scores soar, for example, only 10 percent of its students scored at or above national norms on the ITBS reading section.

“What I think happened is, schools didn’t pay attention to the ITBS or the TAP,” says Hansen.

John Everett, principal of Simeon Vocational High School, which was put on remediation, thinks so, too.

“Kids read their teachers real well, and some teachers may have not taken these tests as seriously,” he says. “Plus, kids were being pumped up for the IGAP. At our school, we posted encouraging signs. We offered them words of encouragement over the P.A. system. They were even given a light breakfast before the tests.”

Indeed, of the 109 schools put on probation, 75 had boosted their IGAP scores in 1996-26 by 5 to 10 percentage points and 7 by more than 10 percentage points.

Chase Elementary in Logan Square, for example, had not been on either the watch list or remediation. “We were totally shocked when we found out we were on the [probation] list,” says a bewildered Mary Mack, Chase’s principal. “Our student scores on the IGAP increased 11 percent from the previous year.” However, only 14 percent scored at or above average in reading on the ITBS.

“We were doing so many things on our own to bring up our IGAP scores, like restructuring the school day for staff development, aligning the curriculum to state goals and blocking out 75 minutes of language arts time a day,” reports Mack. “We just didn’t expect this.”

Ross Elementary in Washington Park, which was on the watch list but not remediation, had registered substantial gains on the IGAP, with the percentage of 8th-graders meeting or exceeding state goals, rising from 5.9 percent in 1995 to 19.7 percent in 1996. However, only 14 percent of the school’s students scored at or above national norms in reading on the ITBS.

Christ Kalamatas, principal of Von Humboldt Elementary in West Town, concedes he was stunned. “But we are strictly going to look at this as a tool,” he says. “I don’t want this to have a negative effort on the staff. Our weaknesses are the same as they were when we were on remediation. We’ll just keep on working as hard as we were.”

Barbara Radner, director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, which has worked with a number of the newly targeted schools, says that the whole process has given principals yet another challenge.

“I’m worried about the teachers and the students,” she says. “If you’re a teacher, I don’t think you do your best work if you are terrified that you’ll lose your job. And students, if they see their school as a failure, where is their hope?”

“I’m sorry we didn’t have the information prior to the announcement because we could have cushioned the blow,” she adds.

After working hard on a number of reform initiatives, teachers at Gage Park High School are discouraged, says Principal Audrey Donaldson. “I’ve had several teachers come into my office, and they kind of just slump down in these big chairs here and say, ‘This doesn’t motivate me at all.’ “

Donaldson has had to talk several veterans out of retiring. In one case, she failed; a 20-year teacher is calling it quits because of the stress.

However, Barbara Sizemore, dean of the School of Education at DePaul University and a partner with several schools on probation and remediation, welcomes the jolt.

“Sometimes teachers and principals work a certain way out of habit. Probation gets everyone’s attention that they need to work differently,” she says. “And if there is anyone who says they are not going to change because ‘It’s the mother’s fault and not mine when these kids don’t learn,’ then probation puts them on notice that they may not be around for long.

Adds Sizemore: “In our schools, we look at [probation] as an advantage.”

‘It’s about control’

Still, some principals question the board’s motivations.

“It’s a lot of show,” says Everett of Simeon High. “They [the board] are trying to put on as many schools as possible to show what they can do. I’ve been around long enough to know that it’s a game. It’s about control.”

“What disturbs me is that I hear the decision was made in August about this stuff, and we were put on ice until now,” says Henry Thompson, principal of Calhoun North in East Garfield Park. “That sounds politically expedient to me.”

In fact, it appeared that school officials changed the criteria shortly before their Sept. 30 announcement. On Sept. 18, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas told Catalyst that both reading and math tests would be used, and Chief Accountability Officer Patricia Harvey said 122 schools would be put on probation. (Catalyst published that information in its October issue.)

Vallas says they finally decided to use only reading because reading is the foundation for all other learning. He says the decision was made by a team comprised of Chief Education Officer Lynn St. James, Chief of Staff Cozette Buckney, Chief Instruction Officer Lula Ford and Larry Franz, head of the new Teacher Accountability Department, as well as Harvey and himself.

Statistically ‘crude’

However, Tony Bryk, a University of Chicago professor and co-director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, calls the board’s approach statistically “crude.”

“Yes, there are clearly some schools that need intervention, and some are dead in the water, as our 1993 report on school reform indicates,” says Bryk. “But the process chosen was not the best.”

Bryk says a better measure of how well a school is doing is the progress its students make over several years. Further, student progress should be viewed through the lens of other factors, such as retention rates, student mobility and students’ proficiency in English. High-stakes accountability systems in other cities and states focus on progress and account for other factors. (See CATALYST, November 1995.)

“Chicago has put more schools on probation than any other city that I can think of,” says Bryk. “But in terms of using statistical data to make their judgments about schools, other cities are much more sophisticated. Chicago’s criteria are crude.”

Also, like most standardized test authors and publishers, authors of the ITBS and TAP warn schools not to use only standardized test scores to judge schools. Scores “may be useful as a partial basis for evaluating instructional effectiveness in a school,” the authors say in their Interpretive Guide for School Administrators. “But test scores alone should not be used to make such judgments.” The guide also says that standardized tests “say little about the effectiveness or competence of individual teachers.”

Responding, Vallas says, “In some cases, we did look at other factors like attendance and drop out rates. In fact, there are 13 or 14 schools with students under the 15 percent that are not on probation. But the bottom line is, overall, the threshold for many of these is so low that other indicators were not relevant. Many of these schools have scores that are in single digits.”

As for schools that had made substantial gains, Vallas says, “I’m not going to say some schools were not surprised. Some schools on probation have shown improvement, and they will show more. But probation gives us more tools to help schools. You either view it as a punishment or as a tool to help yourself.”

CTU backs board

Despite the discouragement in schools, the Chicago Association of Principals and Administrators and the Chicago Teachers Union are standing by the board.

“We are telling our members, ‘It might be dreadful, but just hang in there. It might be depressing to be in a school on probation, but just hang in there,'” says CTU spokesperson Jackie Gallagher. “Many of our members who are teaching in these schools will find that they will become places where they will be proud to teach.”

“I have great sympathy for principals whose schools are on probation,” says Beverly Tunney, president of the principals association, who stood alongside board officials at the probation press conference. “Nobody wants to be on probation. I know I would be devastated. But no matter what had been done, it would not have been fair to someone. I’ve been in this school system for 38 years, and everything has been tried. We have to stop making excuses. I think this is a sincere attempt to improve schools.”

School officials also note that probation brings more help than remediation does. However, there is nothing in the law that prevents the board from giving as much help as it wants to schools on remediation, which don’t face the threat of principal or teacher removal.

Currently, every school on probation is being assessed by one of eight teams made up of staff from the departments of intervention, teacher accountability, school quality review, curriculum and instruction, specialized services and budget. The schools then will be required to modify their school improvement plans to address deficiencies found by the assessment teams. And they may be required to change how they spend their state Chapter 1 funds.

Required changes

At the same time, the Office of Accountability is creating a blueprint school improvement plan that schools can use to guide their own planning. The blueprint will not be so specific that it will require, for example, that schools use Direct Instruction or any particular program, says Hansen. But schools will be required to set aside a certain percentage of money for textbooks, and high schools will be required to set up freshman academies.

Then, each school will be assigned a probation team, which will include a probation manager chosen by central office, a school business manager if the school requests one, an external educational partner, a resource person from the regional office, a representative from the Office of Accountability, a local school council member and the principal.

As Catalyst went to press, administration officials were reviewing a list of 60 potential remediation officers. “We want to look at what these people, mostly current and former principals, have done at their schools,” says Hansen. “We don’t want people who just have good reputations, but who have actually seen increases under their leadership.”

In addition, the new Office of Teacher Accountability will work with principals to examine how they rate their teachers and assist them in dismissing incompetent teachers.