At many schools, it’s tests, tests and more tests

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Aaron Boswell, a 3rd-grader at Beethoven Elementary, concentrates during a practice session for the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. [File photo]

Photo by John Booz

Aaron Boswell, a 3rd-grader at Beethoven Elementary, concentrates during a practice session for the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. [File photo]

A simmering battle over standardized tests heated up last week as CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett sent a letter to parents warning that they shouldn’t opt their children out of state tests and local exams required by the district.

Though CPS has touted its cutbacks on testing, the classroom time spent on exams has recently increased because of the REACH assessments used to evaluate teachers. In fact, a Catalyst Chicago analysis of school assessment plans obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that the steps to curb testing have apparently had little impact: Many schools are administering far more tests than CPS requires, and the youngest children are some of the most-tested.

Catalyst Chicago’s analysis found that:

–An overwhelming majority of elementary schools – 392 schools – are still giving students a mid-year MAP test, even though the district cut back on the NWEA/MAP last year and now requires them only once per year  for 2nd  through 8th-grade students.

–At least 29 schools use more K-2 literacy tests than CPS requires (either the MPG plus a reading fluency test, or a stand-alone reading test like the mClass reading). In some cases, schools that use the MPG are using an entire stand-alone test to meet the reading fluency requirement.

–A total of 219 schools give their youngest students the optional mClass math test up to three times a year. But at least 10 of those schools also administer the MPG, making the mClass redundant.

–In addition to the widespread use of the mid-year MAP test, there are 38 schools that appear to give students more reading or math benchmark tests than the district requires, including turnaround schools as well as highly sought-after gifted, magnet and classical programs.

–Though CPS eliminated a requirement that schools administer the primary-grades MPG (a test of reading and math), some schools still use the test to meet a requirement that the youngest students take a literacy test three times a year. In such cases, CPS also requires schools to administer yet another literacy test to determine children’s reading fluency, because the MPG doesn’t measure it.

Monty Neill, the executive director of FairTest, an organization that advocates against standardized testing, says that with pressure on schools to improve, extra testing “feels like a practical mandate, even if it’s not an official mandate.”

“It comes from the way the system is misusing tests for high-stakes decisions, and then that trickles down to network administrators and principals, who feel like they have to do all this testing to stay on track,” Neill says.

More tests fly under the radar

There are signs that schools may, in fact, be administering even more tests than the assessment plans show. Last fall, Catalyst Chicago obtained copies of testing schedules distributed to parents from four schools. When compared with the assessment plan information later provided by the district, all of the handouts showed more tests:

Goethe Elementary administers two literacy tests – both the TRC/DIBELS and the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System. But only the TRC/DIBELS is listed in the school’s assessment plan. 

Coonley Elementary lists the TRC/DIBELS test in its plan, but not the MPG even though its letter to parents states that the MPG is given to kindergarten and 1st grade children.

Pulaski Elementary’s plan does not indicate that the school administers a math test called the easyCBM to kindergarten through 2nd-graders three times a year.  

Darwin Elementary kindergarten through 8th-grade students take Stride Academy reading, math and science assessments six times during the school year. The tests are not listed in Darwin’s plan.

Cassandre Creswell, a parent activist at Goethe Elementary who is part of the anti-testing group More Than a Score, says the data show that the district’s list of required tests does not tell the whole story. “If 90 percent of schools are giving a test, it is basically obligatory,” Creswell says. The group says Byrd-Bennett’s letter was prompted by the administration’s concerns over the growing resistance to high-stakes testing.

Creswell’s preschooler still attends Goethe, but she just moved her 2nd-grade daughter to a private school because of her concerns about over-testing.

In preschool, Creswell says, her daughter’s teacher told her that the class would lose three weeks of instruction time because teachers would be administering the Kindergarten Readiness Tool, which was discontinued last spring. During that time, a teacher’s aide and parent volunteers minded the classroom.

“When she was in kindergarten in CPS, she was a really good early reader,” Cresswell says. “Her teacher said, ‘I have her read to the class when I am finishing up testing, because I have so much testing to do.’”

Creswell chalks up the extra testing to communication problems between central office, network chiefs and principals. “A principal gets an email from the Office of Assessment saying one thing, [but] they are going to do what the network chief says,” Creswell notes. “You get conflicting information from different sources.”

One example, she says, was the roll-out of the Common Core tests this year. “No one really told schools [the tests were required] until like a week before they wanted scores,” Creswell says. “It is just a hot mess.”

Heather Yutzy, principal at Belding Elementary, says the use of the MAP test in principal, teacher and school ratings may play a role in its wide mid-year use. 

But she believes the main reason so many schools administer it is that it is helpful for knowing where students are academically.

When test results come back, Yutzy holds a one-on-one meeting with each student to talk to them about how they are doing on the test, and whether they are on track to eventually be ready for college.

“We value the test, we value the data, we use it to plan instruction, and once a year is not enough,” Yutzy explains. “There are some best practices around assessment. If you want to see if kids are growing, you need to do benchmarks. You check in frequently.”