Students, teachers and principals must consider it terribly unfair. They work hard to bring up their scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, and then along comes the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. All of a sudden, slow but steady progress turns into mixed results—three steps forward and four back and almost respectable absolute scores turn into miserable marks.
In math, the discrepancy is stark. On the Iowas, Chicago’s elementary school students are within striking distance of the national norm; in the recent round of testing, 46.7 percent scored at or above the norm, leaving them only 3.3 percentage points away from the magic number, 50. However, on the ISAT, 3rd-graders did the best of the three elementary grades tested, and they mustered only 37 percent meeting or exceeding state standards, compared with a statewide average, including Chicago, of 69 percent.
As Catalyst Associate Editor Elizabeth Duffrin reports in this issue, the ISAT math tests are harder in a number of ways. Unlike the Iowas, they have no questions measuring just computation skills, such as adding and subtracting. Rather, they consist of multi-step problems that require reading and analytical thinking, as well as computation skills. In other words, the tests are much more like math in the real world and even math in high school and college. Similarly, the ISAT reading tests have longer passages, and the writing tests ask students to use the reading-test passages as well as their own opinions to craft essays. Again, the challenge is more akin to reading and writing in the real world—and in high school and college.
The Iowas have played an important role in focusing Chicago schools’ attention on student achievement and in keeping them moving. At best, though, they have now reached the point of diminishing returns—the skills the Iowas measure are necessary but not sufficient for later success in school. (Despite improved scores, many freshmen still can’t read high school texts, teachers complain.) At those misguided schools that have used the Iowas as a model for instruction, the tests may even have done damage by distracting them from the school system’s own, more comprehensive academic goals. Teaching for the ISAT, however, may actually get kids someplace.
There is a growing backlash both locally and nationally to high-stakes testing, as well there should be. Making important decisions about individual children on the basis of a test is educational malpractice. Even test makers say, Don’t do that. It’s bad for kids who suffer negative consequences, and it’s bad for those who sail through, because they escape the requirement of doing high-quality work, as well. Further, schools that narrow their curriculum and instruction to mirror the test cheat all their students. However, that doesn’t necessarily make the tests themselves bad. High scores on the ISAT are a worthy goal to shoot for, so long as they’re not the only one.
Mario G. Ortiz, a native of Chicago who has written about education at the Detroit Free Press, Cleveland Plain Dealer and Milwaukee Journal, has joined CATALYST as assistant managing editor. He will split his time between writing and management.
Associate editors Elizabeth Duffrin and Maureen Kelleher, along with Catalyst contributors Grant Pick and Woody Carter of the Metro Chicago Information Center, received a reporting prize in the 1999 Peter Lisagor Awards contest, sponsored by the Chicago Headline Club. Their winning entry was our three-part series “Recruiting and Retaining Teachers,” published last fall.
Liz Duffrin also is among 62 finalists in the 1999 Livingston Awards for Young Journalists. It is the nation’s largest all-media, general reporting contest. It awards three $10,000 prizes— for local, national and international reporting to journalists under 35.