Take 5: REACH exams, Walton’s new focus, profits for testing

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For the first time, this year all teachers will be rated under the new REACH evaluation system that not only take test scores into account, but also student performance on exams designed by teachers. But complaints have emerged that these exams are too hard and setting students (and therefore teachers) up to fail. Saucedo special education teacher Sarah Chambers spoke about the issues at the last board of education meeting.

When questioned by board members, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett shrugged off those concerns, saying the problems with the test might be unique to Chambers’ students. But it turns out that Chambers and other teachers who have expressed concerns might be right. WBEZ reporter Becky  Vevea was given a leaked version of some of the tests and took them to Barbara Radner, the head of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education. Radner, running them through some reading readability indexes, says that the tests were registering at least three grade levels higher than the grade of the students. Some of the passages for 4th-, 5th- and 8th-grade students were at a college level.

Of course, one problem with this criticism is that teachers themselves came up with the tests. CTU’s Carol Caref says that, while the exans are better than having teacher’s evaluations tied only to standardized tests, ultimately the union favors an evaluation system that is not tied to exams at all. CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey says the district is looking closer at the issue.

2. Taking on entire cities … In her first-ever extensive interview, Carrie Penner Walton — the Walton Family Foundation’s point person on education issues — talks with Forbes about moving beyond “choice.” The granddaughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and heiress to one of the world’s largest fortunes says the Foundation’s new mantra when it comes to education policy is “accountability and reach,” with an emphasis on shutting down bad charter schools and expanding help for English language learners and special education students.

In the interview, Penner also gives vague details on the Foundation’s new five-year plan to “take on entire cities.” The Walton Family Foundation — which has spent more than $1 billion on K-12 education since the late 1980s — will soon announce “two to four mid-size ‘proof point’ cities with high poverty rates where they will work with on-the-ground partners to support students in and out of the school setting.” The lofty goal is to ensure every child is being “well-served within that community” and because this will require “buy-ins from major stakeholders, they’ll start with cities politically inclined to support such efforts.”

Could Chicago be one of those cities? The Walton Family Foundation has already had a huge presence here. In 2012, CPS charter schools received more startup funds from the foundation than any other city, getting a total of $3.8 million, according to a Chicago Sun-Times story. Also, that year, CPS received money from Walton for community outreach during the school closings. In 2013, Chicago charter schools got $1 million, including $250,000 for each of the two Horizon Charter Schools, opened by Concept charter operator after they were approved by the independent Illinois State Charter School Commission over the objection of CPS.

3. Phillips loses, but wins… As you probably know by now, Phillips High School’s football team lost the state championship to Rochester High School. If they won, they would have been the first CPS team to win a state championship in football since Robeson in 1982. Mayor Rahm Emanuel sent out a statement congratulating the team. “In defying great obstacles, they have defined what it is to be a great team, and they have developed the personal characteristics that will sustain them into the next season and – most importantly – throughout the rest of their lives.”

Emanuel didn’t note, however, that lack of resources for public school teams is one of the obstacles. In an article from the Toronto-based National Post, coach Troy McAllister says he took over the team because no one else wanted to. The team had no footballs, no pads and only 12 players.

In a DNAinfo article, McAllister elaborated: “It’s almost impossible to believe with the talent and coaches that are in the city that there’s never been a state champion. But when you see the resources that are available to many Public League schools, you see there’s a problem… All these Catholic League and private schools have their own stadiums, and that’s not the case with a lot of Public League teams. It’s not an excuse — you have to overcome it — but it is a big disadvantage.”

4. Classes on computers… As more school districts move toward so-called blended learning that incorporates techonology, the Washington Post asks whether these programs are indeed less expensive. The Washington D.C. Public Schools’ manager of blended learning says these programs are actually more expensive.

One example is a math class at a middle school, with 200 students sitting at computers but the same number of teachers as in a traditional classroom. Start-up costs were high, including $600,000 from the D.C. Public Schools to renovate the room and $400,000 from foundations for software.

Chicago’s foray into blended learning seems to be focused on using computers to provide intervention to help students do better on standardized tests. Byrd-Bennett calls these “personalized learning” instruments. In August, CPS awarded two contracts, each for $250,000, to companies that promise to assess students and match them with the right educational software to improve their skills.

5. On that note… The growth of “personalized learning” tools has helped create tremendous profits for the testing industry. An article in EdWeek explains how the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, as well as “new interest in real-time online assessments and school officials’ desire to link tests to academic content with the goal of personalized’ learning” have helped the industry grow by 57 percent over two years ago.

The research comes from Software & Information Industry Association, a trade group that collected a sample of data from testing companies and then extrapolated the information across the industry.

The article notes that the growth will likely level off over the next few years, as states and districts settle into new assessments.  Karen Billings, the vice president of the education division at the SIIA, says “a lot of the purchases made are [for products] they’re going to use for a while.”