Last summer, when Chicago Public Schools staffer Patrick Haugh told a group of administrators that the district planned to launch a new test, administer it three times a year, and get scores back to schools within two weeks, they laughed.

Rarely has the district demonstrated such quick turnaround. Typically it has taken at least two months for schools to receive scores from the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, and even longer for the ISAT (Illinois Standards Achievement Test).

But CPS has lived up to its promise with the new Learning First tests, part of a sweeping change in how the district measures student and school progress. That change included scrapping the Iowa test in favor of the overhauled ISAT. And perhaps more significantly, Learning First, a relatively short test of reading comprehension, was adopted as a tool to help classroom teachers fine-tune instruction.

“This is a big shift, and we’re going to have to work hard to earn everyone’s trust,” says Haugh, assessment manager in the Office of Research and Evaluation, who is overseeing the Learning First effort. Students took the first round of Learning First tests in October and a second round in January; schools received scores from both rounds ahead of schedule.

In January, parents received copies of their children’s results on the exam, along with a brochure to help them understand the test. The third round of tests in April and May is intended to give schools a picture of the progress students have made since the start of the school year, and to help them plan for next year with data that is more recent than the March ISAT. A similar math assessment is already being piloted by 27 schools for wider use next year.

Developed by Harcourt Assessment at a cost of $1.5 million (money that was previously used for administering the Iowa), the Learning First test is short—just 29 multiple choice items that students answer in a single class period—and is aligned with state reading standards measured on the ISAT.

According to Harcourt’s website, its tests are custom-designed to “help specifically identify breakdowns in student understanding.” The district hopes teachers will put that knowledge to use to improve their teaching.

‘Where our children are’

For each school, classroom and student, the Learning First reports show how many and what percentage of questions students answered correctly for each learning standard, as well as how much progress has been made. Unlike other exams, the actual test booklets and answer sheets are available to teachers and parents for re-examination. Schools also have a resource guide and a video to help them make good use of the results.

So far, the district’s new testing effort appears to be going smoothly, according to principals and area officials.

Learning First “gave us a snapshot of where our children are at this point,” says Principal Phil Salemi of Shields Elementary, a Southwest Side school with 1,900 students. The school’s vocabulary scores were lower than they expected, he reports, so teachers are focusing on improvement in that area.

CPS official have expressed some concern that schools would over-react to the results. Central office sent out a flier titled “Interpreting and Using Learning First Data Responsibly,” full of cautions about interpreting the scores.

In particular, the district has warned against making drastic changes to curriculum or instruction.

Out of that caution, the board will not publicize citywide or school-by-school data, fearing that the scores would end up being used for comparative purposes or as an early predictor of ISAT results.

Area instructional officers and reading coaches are given school-by-school and aggregated results, but there is no citywide report.

“These are not performance-based tests,” says Haugh. “We don’t know how this relates to ISAT performance, and we don’t want to make any statements about ISAT performance that aren’t warranted.”

Haugh also cautions against viewing the tests as a “magic bullet.”

“Walking in, some people thought that there would be a list of 12 things that are going to increase your ISAT scores by 25 percent,” he says. “But this is not a panacea [that’s] going to show everyone how to do better on the ISAT. That’s hard for some people to hear.”

Raising expectations

The board also says it does not want to disrupt the diagnostic testing that some schools are already doing, either on their own or as part of initiatives such as Reading First.

“Many of our schools are doing curriculum mapping and they have come up with their own five-week assessments,” says Area 9 reading coach Willie Legardy. These assessments are usually created by teachers and tied into the particular reading series that schools are using.

At South Loop Elementary, for example, teachers have had their own assessments in four subjects since 2003, in addition to using the DIBELs (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy) and ISEL (Illinois Snapshot of Early Literacy) tests at the primary grades. The school’s own assessments cover reading comprehension and fluency, math and writing.

But the Learning First results still proved useful, according to Principal Pat Bacillieri. “We learned a lot more about what everyone was thinking was appropriate, and that we had to ratchet up expectations,” Bacillieri says. “What’s particularly helpful to us is the individual breakdown of scores for each student. This is very concrete. You can see exactly which standards your kids are missing.”

To make the test results even more useful, South Loop and some other schools have combined students’ results on various tests into one report provided to teachers and students. The report shows three years’ worth of ISAT scores, Learning First scores, and scores from the school’s own assessments.

“Putting those all together on one sheet of paper, you can start seeing patterns on each student and each classroom,” says Bacillieri. “It gives parents and teachers more than just grades to look at, and links everything to state standards.”

The board has completed two sets of meetings with principals and area officials and it has plans for monthly meetings with area reading coaches.

“We don’t want these reports to just end up being put in teachers’ mailboxes,” says Haugh. “The best news is that there are great conversations going on about this data. …We’re trying to shift the focus from accountability to instructional improvement. Learning First is an opportunity to make that real.”

Alexander Russo is a Catalyst contributing editor. E-mail him at

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