Chicago Exemplifies Test Overkill

K-12 Testing

Control of schooling through testing -- deliberately fostering a teach-to-the-test approach -- is once again gaining ground in the US, particularly in schools serving low-income and minority-group children. Based on the drive to raise standards, policymakers and educators reduce schooling to test coaching, often lowering, not raising, standards and narrowing student learning.


Chicago, which this year refused to promote tens of thousands of students based on their scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), represents a clear example of this trend. In response to what is most certainly widespread poor-quality education, the city decided that students in grades 3, 6, 8 and 9 would not be promoted unless they reached minimum levels on the math and reading ITBS. Those who failed -- over 47,000 students -- were required to attend summer school.


Stories described the summer schools as almost militaristic and focusing entirely on coaching for the tests. Students who were close to passing received the most attention. Those who passed a retest were promoted. Grade 3 and 6 students who did not pass were retained. Grade 8 students who had reached age 15 and grade 9 students were put in a transitional program until they scored high enough to enter high school.


At the end of summer school, close to half of those required to attend summer school still had not passed the tests. The non-promotion figures ranged from 56 percent of third graders to 38 percent of eighth graders. An additional 4 to 5 percent were granted waivers. The system is now planning to implement summer school for first graders who do not pass the ITBS next year, and it is thinking of imposing a uniform, citywide curriculum, presumably focused on the ITBS.


The city also has placed sanctions, such as academic probation, on many schools, based primarily on ITBS scores. The sanctions can lead to schools being reconstituted, which includes dismissing the entire staff. Meanwhile, the state put 93 schools in Chicago on academic warning, based on their low scores on the state s Illinois Goal Assessment Program test. Failure to raise those test scores can lead to state takeovers and school reconstitution.


Student Reaction

The Chicago publication Catalyst found that none of the students it interviewed thought standardized tests are a good way to measure students or schools. Referring to the effect of testing on the regular school program one said, And the teachers get so that they don't teach anything else.


Students in Chicago are not the only ones to have complained about their education becoming test coaching. For example, two students in St. Petersburg, Florida, were suspended when they jumped on tables in the cafeteria to shout that the tests were a waste of time and money.


High Stakes Spread

Using tests as a high-stakes decision-maker contradicts the measurement profession s Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. Standard 8.12 reads, In elementary or secondary education, a decision... that will have a major impact on a test taker should not automatically be made on the basis of a single test score. That practice, and the practice of reducing curriculum and instruction to test preparation for norm-referenced, multiple-choice tests such as the ITBS, also run counter to the National Forum on Assessment s Principles and Indicators for Student Assessment Systems. The Principles, signed by over 80 education and civil rights organizations, opposes heavy reliance on such tests (see Examiner, Winter 1995-96).


However, retaining students in grade and sanctioning schools based on test scores both appear to have become more common. Prince George s County, Maryland, reorganized six schools, requiring all employees to reapply for their jobs, while the county also handed out awards to other schools based entirely on scores on various tests. Virginia has introduced plans to cancel accreditation of schools in which too few students pass the state s new, almost entirely multiple-choice tests. The state explicitly wants teaching to the tests, and students will take from 7 to more than 10 tests in a single year, depending on their grade level. Kentucky s accountability program also has generated controversy (see article, this issue).


This summer, Ohio legislated that students who do not pass its grade four reading tests will not be promoted to grade five, beginning with this year's kindergarten class. However, the law provides for exceptions at district discretion. The District of Columbia is considering a policy of not promoting students from grade two unless their reading test scores are high enough, while test scores in a variety of subjects will be part of similar decisions at grades three and eight.