It’s test time! IGAP down, CASE, TAP on tap

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March is IGAP month in Illinois. In every public school, students at various grade levels take Illinois Goals Assessment Program (IGAP) tests in reading, math, writing, science and social science. Next fall, the state will issue school report cards showing how well each school’s students did. A history of especially low scores can land a school on the state’s academic watch list.

In Chicago, the nationally normed Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and their high school counterpart, the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency, have taken on greater importance because they’re used to decide which students must go to summer school and which ones get retained. They’re also used to decide which schools will go on remediation or promotion and which will be reconstituted.

Even so, Chicago schools treat the IGAP very seriously, in part to avoid being caught in the switches again. Until fall 1996, the central administration had emphasized IGAP, and schools followed suit. Then, without warning, the administration used the ITBS and TAP tests for probation. Now schools figure they’d better pay attention to both.

Amundsen has combined its continuing focus on reading strategies with six weeks of intensive test preparation, using the state’s IGAP coaching materials.

Principal Edward Klunk can’t imagine putting more effort into one test than another. “What are they gonna say about your performance if TAP is high and IGAP is low?” he wonders. “You want your best performance on both, because they have to be consistent.”

MAR 9 Snow blows over IGAP plans.

Today, the worst snowstorm of the season buries the Chicago Public Schools’ plans to administer the state IGAP tests this week. While commuters are stuck on the roads, foot traffic in Amundsen’s main hall is heavy but moving. Students are trudging in from the cold after long waits for trains and buses. Operations manager John Gill says it took some students two hours to get to school.

They won’t stay long. Principal Edward Klunk stops a reporter in the hall during the period after division. “School’s going to be dismissed after this period,” he says. “IGAP’s going to be rescheduled to next week.”

Junior Henry Arroyo and his friend Drenan Mizhan are hanging out by the main office during their lunch period. When Klunk announces the IGAP postponement on the loudspeaker, Henry pretends to cry on Assistant Principal Sherwin Bulmash’s shoulder. “I studied for nothing—now I’m brain damaged, that’s it,” he laments. He adds that he did study social studies over the weekend and is disappointed to lose the momentum.

According to today’s attendance reports, 689 of the school’s 1,647 students were absent. Klunk thinks that’s not bad for a near-blizzard.

MAR 16 Staff development struggling, new tests troubling.

Amundsen continues to conduct the weekly staff development sessions it started while it was on probation. Increasingly, they’re being led by teachers rather than administrators.

At today’s 8th-period session, attended by about 20 teachers, science teacher Mark Vondrasek and English teacher Laura Jacobsson split the time. Vondrasek hands out a brief survey asking teachers for their level of expertise with various computer programs. Amundsen’s technology committee is planning to hold computer classes for teachers outside the regular school day.

Then, Jacobsson leads a discussion of Bloom’s taxonomy of knowledge, a hierarchy published in 1949 by University of Chicago Prof. Benjamin Bloom. She asks teachers to write two sets of questions reflecting different points in the hierarchy. One set is to deal with World War II; the second, with a short story by Kate Chopin. In both cases, teachers are to develop three questions: one to check knowledge (factual recall), one requiring a middle-level skill like analysis or synthesis (making an inference or a prediction) and one requiring evaluation (judging information based on a set of criteria).

During the 8th period session, the English teachers become engrossed in the exercise, but most teachers from other departments aren’t paying attention. In 9th period, time runs out before a new group of teachers has an opportunity to discuss, as a group, the questions they wrote. In a debriefing session later, Jacobsson, a first-year teacher, says, “I didn’t feel like I had the power or the authority to tell teachers I don’t know to shut up.”

“So you need a policeman,” suggests Beverly Rawls of Northeastern Illinois University, a former external probation partner whom the school has retained. She would like to require every teacher to present at a staff development session, thinking that teachers might be more respectful of their colleagues if they too had to get up in front of a group.

Karen Boran, a reading consultant from National-Louis University, thinks the current uneasiness is inevitable when teachers are working to shape their own professional development. “What I’m seeing is a natural evolution,” she says. “There’s still an interest in a democratic process for staff development. The internal tension that’s been going on in this building for the last two to three months is, they know what they’re doing is not sufficient, but they don’t now know where to go next.”

In interviews, both Rawls and Principal Klunk agree that the push for staff development has lost some momentum. “Right now, there is a lot of dissension in the ranks about who is leading what,” Rawls says. To her, staff development seems less focused this year and teachers seem less receptive and more disruptive. “Without Big Brother’s stick [probation], it seems to be very difficult,” she says.

Today’s social studies department meeting focuses on the new, upcoming end-of-course exams the Reform Board is developing as part of its accountability plan. The exams now are being called CASE (Chicago Academic Standards Exams). Department chair Mary Ross has distributed copies of the pilot exam for World Studies, and teachers are drafting a letter outlining their concerns.

The exams come in two parts: a multiple-choice section and a “constructed response” section. In social studies, the latter means a few one-paragraph essays. The test, which is supposed to cover what students are supposed to learn in the second semester of World Studies, asks questions about events from 1877 to the present, concentrating on the 20th century.

“It makes the IGAP look wonderful,” says Colleen Murray. “It doesn’t reflect the state goals—Chicago Academic Standards, maybe.”

Noting a chart of post-colonial leaders of third-world nations, teachers say the test presumes “in-depth” knowledge of third-world countries that a survey course cannot provide.

Other complaints include: The test does not reflect the curriculum currently being taught; teachers have not been trained to administer the test or to develop curriculum that relates to it; the test will require new and different textbooks.

Mary Ross’s eyes light up at that suggestion. “That’s why this isn’t gonna work!” she cries. “They’re not gonna pay for the textbooks it requires.”

Some teachers express dismay that their students will have to take the test in June, even though it is unclear what, if any, consequences will be attached to it. Leonard Evans, the most receptive of the dozen teachers in the room, is unfazed. “Give them the test,” he insists. “What the heck—it couldn’t hurt anything.”

Later, he says, “I would like to see something like this, but give it more time to be implemented. I really have no objection to it, but I know what the results would be if we gave it now.”

From the discussion, it’s clear that teachers teaching the same subject at the same grade level in the same school cover very different material. Evans teaches freshmen in the International Baccalaureate program a world studies course that begins with prehistory and emphasizes understanding different cultures. Janet Fennerty teaches freshmen in the Global Village program environmental geography with a focus on the United States.

“We’re just starting the world studies stuff,” she tells Evans.

“Your approach is different from mine,” he acknowledges, mildly surprised himself by the difference.

MAR 17 IGAP, day one: A tale of two divisions.

At long last, it’s IGAP time. Breakfast is scheduled at 8 for sophomores and juniors, who will take the tests for 21/2 hours today, tomorrow and the next day. Freshmen and seniors are scheduled to arrive at the end of the testing period each day; those who show up early are steered to the library to wait.

At 7:55 a.m., Principal Klunk is opening first-floor classrooms. Behind him, a cart rolls down the hall, piled with boxes of doughnuts, graham crackers and orange juice. Students arrive in a steady stream, and their pace is unusually brisk.

Students will take the test in their divisions; their division teacher and another teacher assigned as a proctor will supervise. In Room 107, division teacher Gloria Henllan-Jones and proctor Jane Moy have already started feeding their students. Henllan-Jones also urges them to consider where they want to sit. “This is the writing section, so if anybody really wants to be isolated, there’s a desk up here,” she says, pointing to the front. One boy chooses a desk nestled by a file cabinet along the side of the room. The rest sit in rows as usual.

Over the loudspeaker, testing coordinator John Barnes asks teachers to take attendance. Then, Henllan-Jones reviews the terms students will encounter in the essay “prompts,” or directions. “What is persuasive?” she asks.

“When you explain something,” hazards a boy, giving the definition for expository writing.

“No, it’s convincing,” she replies. “When you’re trying to convince someone of your point of view and you give your reasons for it.”

“How long does the story have to be?” asks a girl named Alexis.

Henllan-Jones turns the question over to the class, asking, “Should you write five paragraphs?” When they say yes, she adds, “Yes, or more. As long as it takes.”

At 8:19, Klunk takes over the public address system, giving a final pep talk. “This is the time that it’s up to you,” he says. “This is the time that no one can stand in your way except you yourself.”

“This is making me nervous,” mutters a girl by the door.

Klunk concludes by reminding everyone of the school’s accomplishments last year and of his signature desire: to beat rival Mather High. “Paul Vallas told us Amundsen’s the most improved high school in the city,” he says. The school made a banner with that quote and the names of students whose TAP reading scores improved. “We need to keep that honor. We need to add many more names to our banner that’s out in the hall. We’re gonna move in front of Mather this year.”

Although the posted schedule says the test begins at 8:25, Barnes will take 20 minutes to read the preliminary instructions over the public address system and ensure all students have had time to fill in the bubbles for their name, gender, ethnicity and so on. Later, a number of teachers complain to CATALYST that the resulting 45-minute wait was too long for their students. In 107, most students began filling in bubbles during Klunk’s speech.

The first prompt is to write a persuasive essay making the case for or against permitting students to drive to school. Tierney Styles, like many of her classmates, pencils notes in the page provided for “pre-writing” and then writes her essay in ink. Methods vary: Styles’s pre-writing is a brief, neat outline with traditional Roman numerals. But the girl in front of her has written a page-long rough draft and then a long afterthought in the margin; an arrow points where it belongs.

Both Moy and Henllan-Jones proctor actively, as advised, circling the room and looking for questions. Early on, they respond to a fair number of students—explaining the meaning of a word in the directions or reminding them to fill in the bubbles underneath their names—but never spend more than a few seconds with each. After about 10 minutes, Moy continues to circulate while Henllan-Jones watches the class intently, leaning against her desk. In another 10 minutes, Moy too will repair to the front of the room and do some reading.

Henllan-Jones heads for a filing cabinet, opens and closes it noiselessly and then talks very quietly with Catalyst. “A lot of them are taking both positions, or saying ‘I agree’ or ‘I disagree’ without stating what they agree or disagree with,” she notes. She is worried that this will cost them points when the essay is graded, but knows it’s too late to save them now. “A lot of them are falling down, and you can’t tell them that. If you start explaining, you’re blowing the test.”

Tierney counts her paragraphs—she has four—before starting her fifth with the phrase “in conclusion.”

At 9:04, Barnes comes on the loudspeaker to announce the halfway point. No one appears to have finished, though Tierney is looking over her paper. By 9:10, the first few students are done; they sit quietly, some shaking out their hands.

Now Henllan-Jones resumes cruising the aisles, checking to make sure students who are done have read over their work. All say yes. By the last five minutes, only two or three students are still working. The squeak of an eraser indicates someone is making corrections; otherwise the room and the hallway are silent.

At 9:25, Barnes calls time, papers are collected, and the students take a bathroom and snack break.

In Charles Richardson’s division on the second floor, proctor Robert Kuzmanic walks the rows, distributing orange juice in plastic containers. “I feel like I’m working on an airplane,” he jokes.

Test administration in this room is much more relaxed. At the end of the break, Richardson is still collecting prompts from the first essay. He distributes the second part of the essay exam well before the official OK comes over the public address system.

This time, students get to choose between two prompts: writing a narrative about a time they were nervous or writing an expository essay comparing two courses by describing their likes and dislikes about each.

Before starting the essay itself, students receive five minutes expressly to choose a topic. “Mr. Richardson, this is a narrative?” asks Carrie Hemphill. When he says yes, she asks how long it has to be. At least five paragraphs, he advises, but proceeds to give some confusing advice. At first he suggests, “give three reasons,” then amends the advice to work with narrative, adding, “you can tell about three things that happen” within the narrative.

When the command to begin comes over the loudspeaker, two girls take a moment to wrap up their conversation before getting down to work. At first, Richardson watches from the front, but as time goes on, he becomes more engrossed in reading, looking up when students need a pencil sharpened or come to his desk with a question. Meanwhile, Kuzmanic grades papers from a student desk near the lab tables in the back of the classroom area.

Although there’s no sign of students trying to copy from each other, there are quiet conversations going on. None of the seven or eight students CATALYST could observe chose to pre-write.

Carrie finishes her essay well within the first 20 minutes but tells a reporter later she wrote two pages. About 25 minutes into the test, about half the students appear to have finished. Three conversations break out in different areas of the room, still in low tones, but more audible than anything up to this point.

“Please try to refrain from talking until the test is over,” Richardson says softly. The room quiets down except for three girls in the back corner of the room.

About five students appear to be writing or proofreading during the last 10 minutes of this session. Eventually Richardson gets up and shushes the students who are finished because the volume rises again. No one is writing when time is called.

Sophomore Cynthia Brandenberg says this essay was easier for her than the first one. She chose the expository essay.

Of the persuasive essay on driving to school, she says, “It was a hard subject for me to write about.” Although the prompt suggested reasons to write an essay opposing driving to school, she didn’t use them. “I was for students driving their cars to school. I could only think of like one thing to write about, and that was it.”

MAR 18 IGAP day two: A larger perspective.

This morning, Assistant Principal Ken Hunter and three students are distributing two packs of highlighter pens for each division, starting on the first floor. Sophomores are taking the reading section today, and juniors are taking social science; both groups are allowed to use the highlighters on the test booklets as they read passages.

Yesterday’s pre-test pep talk has been replaced by a musical selection. In the main office, testing coordinator Barnes plays a tape of a pop ballad entitled “The Power of a Dream” over the public address system.

Across the hall from Barnes, proctor Leonard Evans shepherds a latecomer into his classroom. “Come on man,” he urges with a smile, “we singin’ this song just for you.”

In the cafeteria, limited-English-proficient students are taking the IMAGE test, which uses IGAP-style questions designed to measure their command of English. Proctor Genaro Cueva reads the test instructions. As in the IGAP, each question can have up to three yes answers, and students must blacken all five choices either yes or no. After finishing the instructions, he ad libs, “Do you understand how this works? I hope you do—we’ve been working on this.”

Even native speakers of English take a while to catch on to the format. Later, a reporter meets proctor Laura Jacobsson in the hallway. “I have sophomore ‘demotes,’ and it’s clear they didn’t go to class during IGAP prep,” she says, mock-tearing her hair. “They’re still asking me, ‘Do you mean we have to fill in the no’s too?’ Yeeesss!”

About 15 minutes into the actual testing, Klunk takes a walk around the entire building to see how things are going. At most rooms, he looks in, smiles or waves to the proctor and is on his way. A few teachers step out for brief conversations.

After peering in the window of Room 212, he taps very gently on the glass to get the proctor’s attention. Klunk points to a student and says quietly, “He can’t be finished yet.” The proctor says she has spoken to the student, who says he is done.

Back in the hall, he says he thinks it’s much too soon to be finished. But he adds with a chuckle, “If it’s the only one I see, I won’t be terribly upset.” His walk-through turns up only one other early finisher.

Today’s meeting of department chairs segues into an informal debriefing on the testing. Everyone agrees students seemed to take the test seriously, perhaps even more seriously than last year.

Attendance for yesterday’s testing was 92 percent. A number of teachers comment that students worked hard on the tests. “None of the kids in my division wrote it off,” says physical education chair Frank Heitler. “Only one didn’t complete [the test], and he was trying. That’s a good sign.”

Jaime Alvarez proctored the IMAGE test and saw similar efforts. “They were writing two, three pages,” he marvels. “Sure, they had a few little mistakes, but they wrote.”

Klunk takes the opportunity to praise Amundsen’s test preparation program. “That’s just a sign that no matter how much we say the kids are tired from all the test preparation,” it has paid off. “They don’t have a problem with writing because they’re writing so much,” he observes. “Now they can sit right down and start an essay. That wasn’t the case three and four years ago.”

Teachers complain that students had to wait 45 minutes between breakfast and the start of testing. Klunk acknowledges their concern, but reminds them that the delay was designed to provide a cushion for stragglers. “Maybe we could shorten it a little next year,” he says.

Guidance chair Sondra Few says the strategy got results. “I’m not a great estimator, but between 8 and 8:30, I would say upward of maybe 100 kids came in,” she notes. “I think that helped our attendance—I know it did.”