State testing bill could eliminate ITBS in Chicago

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Chicago Public Schools hopes to eventually eliminate its own standardized testing program, and rely instead on state tests for school accountability and student promotion. A bill now being considered by the State Senate Education Committee could make that hope a reality.

Senate Bill 667 would extend testing in reading, writing and mathematics to all Illinois students in grades 3 to 10 by Spring 2005. Currently, the state tests are given only in grades 3, 5 and 8 in those subjects.

That change could allow CPS to drop its own annual tests in math and reading for grades 3 to 8, according to Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen.

Filling in gaps in the state testing system would allow many districts to do likewise, according to Richard Laine of the Illinois Business Education Coalition. That was one idea that motivated his group to begin drafting S.B. 667 two years ago, well ahead of President George W. Bush’s proposal to require annual state testing in those subject areas in grades 3 through 8.

“We’re not looking for more testing; we’re looking for better, improved testing,” insists lobbyist Heidi Beiderman of the Large Unit District Association, which joined last year in drafting the bill.

With one set of math and reading tests, CPS could merge its own school accountability system with the state’s, Hansen explains.

Currently the district places elementary schools on academic probation if they score poorly on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS). The state keeps an “academic watch list” of schools with low scores on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT).

Hansen thinks schools find the dual system confusing. “They’re saying, ‘Well what’s important here and what shouldn’t I worry about?’…It would be better to have one list.”

Before CPS eliminates the ITBS, however, some changes to the state test are needed, Hansen insists. For one, the state is unable to report in detail how students performed on individual math and reading skills as can be done with the ITBS. Schools need that information to improve instruction, he says.

More importantly, Hansen explains, the district would need test results by June to decide which students need summer school. Although Chicago administers the ISAT during the first two weeks of April, results are not reported until October.

S.B. 667 calls for ISAT results to be returned by mid-May, except for the writing test. Carmen Chapman-Pfeiffer, the Illinois State Board of Education’s (ISBE) assessment director, says that it would be “close to impossible” to meet this goal.

Unlike the multiple-choice ITBS, the ISAT math and reading tests require some written responses. For example, on the 2000 reading test, 3rd-graders were asked to explain in writing how saguaro cactuses and desert animals depend on each other for life, using information from a three-page article.

Written responses demand a higher level of thinking than multiple-choice responses, but are more time consuming to grade, Chapman-Pfeiffer explains, because they must be hand-scored by trained readers.

Adding staff to speed the pace would increase costs and compromise accuracy, she says. “You can only train so many people and keep control of the whole scoring system.”

She concedes that the state board might be able to return results on the multiple-choice portion of the exam by the end of the school year, but she fears it would lessen the importance of the written response.

Hansen acknowledges that if the state is unable to meet CPS’s assessment needs, the district may continue with the ITBS on top of the new state tests. That would add up to five or seven standardized tests a year for students in grades 3 to 8. But he adds, “We are committed to work with the state to pull this off and not run parallel systems.”

What the new tests will look like remains undecided. Some city school superintendents are pushing for a nationally normed standardized test like the Terra Nova or ITBS to replace the math and reading ISAT exams.

Supt. Robert Hill of Springfield finds tests purchased from publishers more credible with teachers and less costly. Supt. Robert Nielsen of Bloomington questions whether the ISAT would measure up to standards for quality testing such as those set by the American Psychological Association. If it can, he says, “I’ll shut up.”

Hansen of CPS favors published standardized tests over the ISAT because they’re “tried and true” and quicker to score. For high school students, he would like the state to adopt the same ACT preparation tests that Chicago uses for 9th- and 10th-graders. The Large Unit District Association, which represents Illinois’ 55 largest school districts, is not taking a position on what tests the state should use.

Others argue that ISAT better measures state learning standards than more generic standardized tests. This group includes the Illinois Business Education Coalition, which initiated S.B. 667, and Ed-Red, a coalition of 114 suburban districts, which opposes the bill on grounds of test “overload,” according to lobbyist Donna Baiocchi.

S.B. 667 would appoint a committee made up of teachers, administrators, university staff, a student, a parent, a business leader and others to study the options and make recommendations.

But state law currently gives ISBE final say on testing matters, according to Chapman-Pfeiffer, and it is firmly behind the ISAT, which replaced older state-developed tests three years ago. Switching tests yet again would hamper state efforts to chart school progress, she adds. “You lose all your trend data.”

Illinois is not alone in its student testing dilemmas. A 1994 federal law required every state to assess students at three grade levels in order to receive Title I funds for high poverty schools. The tests must measure student progress against academic standards set by the state in core subject areas.

The tradeoff is whether a state wants a more sophisticated test that yields better information or a test that is quick and easy to grade,” says Jennifer L. Vranek of Achieve, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advises states on standards and assessment.

To get timely test results, states have tried a number of strategies, she reports. For example, New York tests students in January and returns results before the end of the school year, she says. “The criticism there is that students only have half a year to learn the material,” she notes. Massachusetts returns the results of its spring test in two waves: the multiple-choice portion first, and the hand-scored written responses later.

Indiana tests students in October on the previous grade level’s material, with the idea that teachers spend September reviewing anyway, Vranek explains. Results are back by Thanksgiving.

Congress is now negotiating a bill that would require states to test 3rd- to 8th-graders annually in math and reading or language in order to receive Title I funds.

Only seven states currently meet that requirement, according to Vranek.

The Illinois Senate Education Committee will wait for the U.S. Congress to pass the Title I bill before proceeding with S.B. 667, says State Sen. Lisa Madigan (D-Chicago), the committee’s minority spokesperson. “It would have been premature to put in new testing when we didn’t know what the federal government was going to be requiring of the states,” she explains.

The Education Committee would also like to sift through testimony on the bill from four public hearings held this summer, she adds.

Congress may pass the Title I re-authorization by late November, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce.