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Third graders at Kwame Nkrumah Academy rigorously prepare for the upcoming ISAT

When it comes to the test, no pressure leads to better performance

by Danielle Cadet
Feb 16, 2011

The Illinois Standards Achievement Tests are quickly approaching. But if you’re looking for students biting their nails and banging their heads, you won’t find them in Chicago contract schools.

Instead, it’s just an average school day. Contract school educators say they avoid teaching to the test and prefer a holistic curriculum that gives students both test-taking and life skills.

“The idea of teaching to the test has never been in our building,” said Dr. Beverly Echols, principal of Hope Institute, a contract school on the Northwest Side. “We want them to be able to be lifelong learners.”

The state tests schools’ achievement to determine whether a school can continue to operate or be placed on probation. As a result, the ISATs can easily be seen as D-Day, particularly for contract schools that operate in a trial period of sorts compared to their charter counterparts.

But administrators say they don’t agree with teaching to the test just to produce high scores.

“We just think it’s wrong,” said Virginia Kobilca, vice president of curriculum and instruction for American Quality Schools. The organization oversees five charter schools in Chicago as well as Plato Learning Academy Elementary School, a contract school on the Northwest Side.

“We don’t want to teach specifically to a test. We certainly teach all the standards but we want children to be able to apply it later on in life.”

Educators said they rely heavily on data provided by organizations such as the Northwest Evaluation Association, a non-profit organization that uses statistics to improve instruction and monitor student development.

“The data not only drives instruction,” said Monique Whittington, principal of Kwame Nkrumah Academy, “it gives us a clear picture of where we are.”

Whittington’s school was originally a contract school but was approved by the school board to receive charter school status last month. This is the first year the new third-grade class will be taking the ISATs, and she said she does not want students to crack under pressure.

“We don’t want them to feel like this one test is the determination of who they are and what they can do,” she said. “We want to make sure that our children are comfortable and that we don’t have that testing anxiety.”

Echols said she feels contract and charter schools have an advantage over traditional schools that are limited to certain hours and curriculums. Students at Hope have early dismissal on Tuesdays so that teachers can have professional development, she said. This gives teachers an opportunity to assess their strengths and weaknesses.

Experts say students function better in an environment that focuses on holistic development and avoids pressure.

“Children’s socio-emotional development requires social interaction with people,” said Catherine Davis, associate professor of pediatrics at Georgia Health Sciences University. “So turning them into little academic robots isn’t going to be particularly helpful.”

Administrators seemed to agree that their main concern is monitoring the progress their students show rather than compelling them to focus on scores.

Whittington said, “If we’re showing growth, that’s what’s most important.”