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CPS students sit through standardized tests throughout the school year; with the district instituting tests not mandated by the state, is Chicago testing too much?

With 88 sessions for its students, CPS tests more than the standard

by Blake Williams
Nov 29, 2011


MEDILL/Blake Williams

Wendy Katten, right, waits in line to attend the Nov. 16 Board of Education meeting to discuss standardized testing, among other things.

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Cracking the test

No. 2 pencils, test booklets and Scantron bubbles.

Chicago Public Schools students are using a lot of all three.

Students in the district can expect to sit through at least 88 sessions of standardized testing between third and eighth grade. As a result, 172,385 students in those grades were tested in reading last school year, according to the school system’s website.

Wendy Katten has a third-grader in the district and said the testing is out of hand.

“They need to find out which ones work and cut down the [number of] tests to those that are effective,” she said. “It shouldn’t be about volume. They keep adding on without figuring out what’s effective.”

The district, perhaps understandably, feels that the tests are effective and provide valuable information about those taking them, spokeswoman Ana Vargas said in an email. “CPS is working to identify more rigorous and comprehensive assessments to help principals, teachers and parents gain a better understanding of how students are achieving relative to national norms.”

The test that the district uses to compare student performance to national levels is the Illinois Standards Achievement Test.

The state-issued exam is used to determine whether students in third, sixth and eighth grade are promoted to the next grade level. Students must meet or exceed the 24th percentile in reading and math scores in addition to at least a C-average report card.

Those who don’t meet these requirements must take summer school classes and may have to repeat the grade.

Linda McNeil, an education expert and professor at Rice University, said she takes issue with the way the district uses the test.

“It is against the ethics of testing to use the tests of a child for any purpose it wasn’t designed for,” she said. “Any time a state test is used to deny grade promotion, that is completely unethical.”

The ISAT was first administered to CPS students in 1999 and replaced the Iowa Test of Basic Skills as the test used to determine promotion seven years later.

That year, just more than 59 percent of students met or exceeded national standards in reading and 64 percent did the same in math. Last year those numbers were more than 72 and 79 percent, respectively.

With so much riding on meeting certain standards, some, including parents such as Katten, feel that teachers are forced to spend time preparing students to pass the test, rather than their own curriculum.

“We should be training teachers on great instruction and trusting them to do that instead of measuring, measuring, measuring and characterizing schools and children as failing,” Katten said.

Rockford Public Schools, the fourth largest district in the state, chooses not to use standardized test data to determine student promotion. As an Illinois public district, Rockford is obligated to administer the ISAT to students in third through eighth grade and the Prairie State Achievement Examination to 11th grade students.

Frank Schelpy, the district’s assessment manager, said that the tests give an incomplete depiction of a student’s ability.

“That’s a once-a-year snapshot,” he said. “It may not be giving you a full picture of what a student has learned. It’s a point in time and we don’t think that using it as a tool for promotion is a good idea.”

McNeil said she not only agrees with Schelpy, she finds any sort of benchmark testing—how CPS labels its promotion testing—a “huge waste of time.” She also said no research has been conducted to show that standardized testing contributes to student learning.

With or without supporting research, another Chicago resident said she does not approve of the way Chicago uses the tests. Evangel Yhwhnewbn has a grandson in the school system and said she feels he is one of those the standardized testing equation fails.

“It’s proven to be a built in failure so why is it continuing?” she said. “When it does, the students are losers.”

Just over a month from now, those students will take the Scantron Performance Series test and they will need to have their No. 2 pencils ready.