Time to Talk about Meaningful Assessment at CPS

ACCESS, Dibels, REACH, NWEA – Map, CCQ, ISAT, Explore, PLAN, mCLass, Compass. What is all this? There are 22 different tests listed on the CPS website.  RYH has been focused on advocating for more resources and funding for our schools since 2010 when we were faced with the threat of a class-size increase to 37 students due to state budget cuts but our mission has expanded since then and we plan to spend some of this year tackling the issue of standardized testing.

Funding is still a top priority and we are embarking on a two-year funding campaign at the state level but equally important is the discussion about how our kids are learning and how the emphasis on high-stakes testing impacts teaching and learning environments at CPS. We plan to have our first forum on the “Culture of Testing and what it all Means” on Thursday, November 29th. In conjunction with other community groups around the city, RYH aims to bring information and spark discussion with parents and teachers on this important topic through multiple town-hall meetings this year.

Last week I attended a talk hosted by Catalyst with University of Chicago Professor Camille Farrington on “Sweating the Small Stuff: What Schools Can Do.” Dr. Farrington is the lead author of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research report, “Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners.” http://ccsr.uchicago.edu/sites/d6clone.ilraiseyourhand.org/files/publications/Noncognitive%20Report.pdf.  A portion of her talk focused on how grades are much better predictors of how students will fare post-high school than are test scores. She argued that schools should shift the focus away from test scores and instead help students develop the skills and mindsets they need to succeed post-high school.  She listed four fundamental academic mindsets for students: 

  • I belong in this community, 
  • I can succeed at this, 
  • My abilities and competency levels grow with my effort, and 
  • This work has value to me.  

But how can schools work to encourage and change mindsets and put the time into student-centered curricula when they are under constant pressure to up test scores?  At CPS, schools are labeled with a Level system of 1, 2 and 3 based on a narrow metric of ISAT scores, attendance rate and value added measures. If they don’t meet certain percentages on a point system, they end up on the “Level 3, probation list.”

We have heard all year about all the failing schools and need for quality seats, as if the learning/seats in the building are fixed and intractable, and the culture inside a building is not something that is fluid to be developed and improved upon from teachers/administrators and the leaders of the district as a whole.  Can we really expect students to firmly believe in themselves when their schools are labeled “on probation,” “failing”, etc., and they are assigned with Level systems and color codes based on test scores to determine whether they will stay open or be closed?  

It would be nice if our district changed the tone from the top and found a less-punitive and more-assets based approach to assessing what’s happening inside our schools. Since research shows that test scores are limited and not the whole picture in what they tell us about student learning, as parents we have to question how this is working to our children’s benefit. As it stands, some of our schools operate as test prep factories rather than as strong learning environments. We have reports from teachers who say walls of their school building are plastered with papers that identify students by their scores and color codes; the emphasis seems only to be on how to get these students from test group a to b and nothing else. We question whether such a narrow focus can help Chicago students achieve their potential. We wonder too, how many kids are alienated by such methods. And how much does the curriculum get narrowed, especially in those “Level 3” schools? How much time is test prep taking away from meaningful learning time?  Which assessments are useful to our teachers and should they have a stronger say in what is mandated by the district? All of our students deserve learning environments that are engaging, joyful, stimulating, positive, relevant, etc. There is a reason why many of our private schools in Chicago do not administer any standardized testing until the intermediate/upper grades.

I learned last week that 850 school boards in Texas have signed on to a resolution against the over-reliance on high-stakes testing.  In Chicago, we have not really had a vibrant public discourse on this topic. The discussion has been relegated to a very misguided narrative of “good” teacher vs. “bad” teacher. Good teachers don’t just exist in a vacuum or a closed-off schoolroom; they are encouraged and supported by school leaders and districts that support good teaching and learning environments as part of a larger community. Such districts understand what is needed for teachers to effectively do their jobs. We hope that our new CEO will do a thorough assessment of the quantity and value of standardized tests to which Chicago kids are routinely subjected.  As parents, we want our children to benefit from learning environments that allow them to think critically and develop problem-solving and conflict resolution skills that will help them succeed past high school, not just test well. We look forward to discussing this topic with you this year!