Take 5: PARCC scores, nurse issues, closer union ties

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A parent concerned about the new PARCC test asks a question during a forum at Sandoval Elementary in Gage Park in January.

Photo by William Camargo

A parent concerned about the new PARCC test asks a question during a forum at Sandoval Elementary in Gage Park in January.

Fewer than four in 10 Illinois students who took the state’s new Common Core-aligned standardized test on a computer this year met or exceeded expectations in math and reading, according to preliminary results released Wednesday by the Illinois State Board of Education.

About three-quarters of students in 3rd to 8th grades and high school took a computer-based Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam. The rest took a paper and pencil test, and their scores are not included in the preliminary results.

In CPS, all 3rd- to 5th-grade students took a paper and pencil test, so their scores are not included. Older students used tablets and computers, so their scores are.  Students who opted out of the test — 9,600 according to self-reports by CPS principals — also aren’t included.

English language arts/literacy:

Grade Exceeded expectations Met Approached Partially met Did not meet
3 2% 32% 23% 22% 21%
4 5% 32% 30% 21% 12%
5 2% 35% 28% 23% 12%
6 3% 30% 31% 24% 12%
7 8% 29% 28% 20% 15%
8 6% 32% 27% 20% 15%
High school 5% 26% 26% 23% 20%


Grade Exceeded expectations Met Approached Partially met Did not meet
3 5% 31% 26% 25% 13%
4 2% 26% 27% 31% 14%
5 3% 24% 31% 29% 13%
6 3% 23% 31% 30% 13%
7 2% 25% 34% 29% 10%
8 3% 28% 22% 27% 20%
High school 0% 17% 24% 37% 22%

*Does not include students who took the test on paper or in braille, Spanish or sign language. Students with significant cognitive disabilities took an alternative assessment.

State Superintendent Tony Smith has cautioned against making comparisons to past state tests, saying in a call with reporters this week: “I think we should use this new assessment as a new starting point for our conversations about progress.”

The new exam is aligned with higher standards aimed at challenging students to analyze complex texts and demonstrate their understanding of key skills through problem-solving.

In a letter sent out before scores were released, Smith said state officials expected fewer students would be able to demonstrate proficiency on the PARCC than on previous tests. The Tribune reports the scores are lower than any statewide test results since 2001.

While the data are incomplete, Smith said he wanted to release them to begin conversations with schools and parents about the results. District-level data aren’t expected to be released until later in October or November, he said.

Eleven states and Washington, D.C. administered PARCC this year, and Illinois was the second to release some scores. Ohio released its online scores earlier this week — with similar results — though it has since dropped the test, as have Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas.

Smith told reporters that Illinois is “definitely still in PARCC” and he believes the test administration will get better with time — pointing out that for the assessment data to be helpful in improving instruction, it must be available sooner. But others say the scores do little to help teachers or students improve and are continuing to caution against using the PARCC for accountability purposes next year.

“These scores have very little to do with how children actually learn,” Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said in a statement. The parent group Raise Your Hand questioned how cut scores were set to define whether students are meeting or exceeding standards, describing those dividers as “disputable, subjective judgements.” State officials acknowledged that the panels of educators that help set the cut scores — including about 20 from Illinois — argued over how well students should be expected to answer certain test questions and sometimes changed their minds across multiple decision-making sessions.

2. New rules for food purchases … CPS announced new, strict rules for spending on food — such as pizza or submarine sandwiches — after an internal review prompted by a Sun-Times record request uncovered $1.5 million in food spending in Central Office. Acknowledging the problem, CEO Forrest Claypool said in a statement that in the current “challenging budget climate, we can’t waste money on unacceptable and undocumented Central Office food expenses.”

In total, the district spent $2.9 million in general education dollars on food from outside vendors last year and nearly half that amount went to Central Office departments. More than a third could not be accounted for because of miscoding or a lack of information. One of the key takeaways from the new rules — and there apparently weren’t any previously — is that CPS funds “cannot be used to purchase food or beverages for events that involve only Central Office staff, including department meetings.”

While the spending represents just a fraction of the half-billion-dollar budget deficit CPS currently faces, it’s seen as an “excessive show of decadent spending when kids in district schools are being starved of resources,” as Wendy Katten of the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand puts it. Kudos to reporter Lauren FitzPatrick for filing a public records request to get this information.

3. Issues staffing nurses … The BGA has found that more than 30 CPS students who needed a nurse during the first week of school didn’t have one — one kindergarten student stayed home for five days because a nurse wasn’t available to help him. CPS didn’t explain the cause of the staffing issue and wasn’t sure how many children stayed home or for how long. (Just over 150 CPS students receive one-on-one nursing care, while some 13,000 have a medical issue that requires some help from a nurse.)

Some parents said the shortage stemmed from a switch to a new staffing company that provides nurses to CPS. Back in June, the New Jersey-based RCM Technologies won a four-year, $30 million contract to provide and schedule nurses across the district, replacing three other vendors that had been helping to staff nurses in schools.

At the time, one of those vendors told Catalyst she questioned how the new provider would be able to staff enough nurses by the start of the school year.

CPS said it employs 280 nurses, while RCM was contracted to provide about 170.

Now that vendor, ATC Healthcare Services, is suing CPS and RCM. The company alleges that RCM tried to recruit several of its nurses to meet the district’s staffing needs.

4. Closer ties between unions … The Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS) and the Chicago Teachers Union were already allies on a number of issues — and the CTU has been supplying a paid organizer position to the much smaller charter school union. But now the two unions will have a more formal relationship, as the CTU steps in to provide professional services such as assistance during contract negotiations and the grievance process.

Previously the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) provided these services for the charter union, which represents about 1,000 workers at 32 schools. About 20 percent of Chicago’s charter schools are unionized.

Brian Harris, president of ChiACTS, says the decision to switch service providers is a practical one as the CTU could offer more staff to handle a growing number of labor contracts. A total of six contracts are being negotiated or renegotiated this year, he says, including a first-ever agreement for staff at three Urban Prep Academies campuses. “This is an opportunity to build closer ties with each other,” Harris said. “We have a lot in common with the CTU. We serve the same kids, and we’re subject to terrible decisions of the school board.”

The change does not mean that ChiACTS is joining or merging with the CTU, explained Leah Raffanti, a former charter organizer for the CTU who will now lead the new services work. The state’s charter school law prohibits unionized teachers at charter schools from joining the same bargaining unit as district employees

5. New way to compare colleges … The Obama administration launched a highly anticipated new website last week called College Scorecard, which provides information such as average annual costs, graduation rates and what students earn after they graduate. While much of this information was already publicly available, NPR reports that the Scorecard also has new information, including how many students are first-generation, how much students earn a decade after starting school and how many students are repaying at least some principal on their federal loans within three years.

The one thing the website doesn’t do is rank schools against one another, leaving students and parents to weigh the information themselves. Some say the Scorecard amounts to a big data dump that doesn’t account for nuances — especially at colleges that serve many low-income students and students of color, which may not do as well on these measurements. But supporters argue it’s more transparent than the hodgepodge of other college ratings tools currently available, many of which have “ambiguous and often inconsistent definitions and grading categories,” the Atlantic reports.

Here in Chicago, DNAinfo used the new Scorecard data to find out which Chicago college’s graduates earn the most, compared to how much they paid for school, with the City College’s Wright and Truman campuses and the University of Illinois at Chicago topping the list.

In another analysis of the new data, ProPublica found that “more than a quarter of the nation’s 60 wealthiest universities leave their low-income students owing an average of more than $20,000 in federal loans.”

One last note … Check out WBEZ’s three-part series called “The Education of Jose Garcia.” The story follows a graduate of the Noble charter network’s Rauner campus who returned to the school after college to become a teacher. Garcia is getting an alternative teaching certificate through a new program that Noble itself created in partnership with the Relay Graduate School of Education. And like many first-year teachers, Garcia has serious doubts about whether he wants to stay on.

  • Concerned Parent

    What will be interesting is if the final PARCC scores from the students who took the paper exam are higher than the students at the same grade level, who took PARCC online.

  • Concerned Parent

    This will open your eyes on Pearson and testing – timely:

    Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Standardized Testing