Chicago’s new school accountability system cures much of what ailed the old one, educators and activists agree. But it has a few bugs of its own, some contend.

The old system hinged on a single cutoff score on a single, nationally standardized reading test. The new one looks at both achievement levels and gains on a number of tests and, at the high school level, includes other factors, such as dropout rates.

“I certainly think it’s positive that they are looking at gains and that they are rewarding schools for progress as opposed to simply punishing schools for lack of progress,” says Donald R. Moore, executive director of the research and advocacy group Designs for Change. “We’re disappointed they’re still clinging to the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS).”

Under the old system, only the ITBS and its high school counterpart, the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP), counted. Under the new one, the high school test will change to the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE). Elementary schools will be judged on their better score on either the ITBS or the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), which is pegged to state learning standards.

“I’m afraid the system is so complex that schools will lose sight of the standards, and schools will try to figure how they can make gains on one of these tests in order to fall into a particular category,” says Moore.

Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, is concerned about the increased use of school corrective action plans. Under the old system, only schools on probation were required to have one; under the new system, schools in the two categories above probation also are required to have one.

Woestehoff says that at probation schools, corrective action plans have not had input from local school councils. The expansion is “a significant diminishment of LSC authority,” she says. “The law is pretty clear about when corrective action plans should be put into place.”

The new system’s complexity also presents challenges to LSCs, Woestehoff says. She says materials central office sent LSCs to explain the new system “didn’t seem to be very helpful.” Though the new system does let LSCs know that meeting state standards is important, that’s “not enough to give a good idea of where to turn and what to do next.”

The following are the problems that testing experts and educators found in the old accountability system and how the new system addresses them:

ITBS makes a bad yardstick. In a 1998 report, the Consortium on Chicago School Research steering committee recommended that CPS not use so-called norm-referenced tests like the ITBS because they are not designed to measure attainment of specific learning goals. Rather, they reflect the current state of achievement nationwide and simply compare students to each other.

The new system is a purposeful nudge toward a measurement based on standards. “This was all very deliberate,” says John Easton, director of research and evaluation for CPS and a director of the Consortium. “We wanted the ISAT in there because we wanted the multiple subjects, and we wanted to push people toward thinking about that test.”

School officials have said they will abandon the ITBS once the state completes ISAT exams for all grade levels, 3 though 8.

There was no accounting for progress. When a single cutoff score was the sole accountability measure, faculty and students at especially distressed schools got no credit for progress. Schools above the cutoff score had no external incentive to improve.

There were no carrots. In the past, the accountability system had no rewards, save for the relative safety of getting off probation. Now, schools may win $10,000 awards for exceptional progress, and those awards are available to schools at both the bottom and top of the achievement scale. In November, the 60 schools with the highest test score gains received $10,000 awards.

There was no incentive to keep kids in school. Now dropout rates and the percentage of freshmen achieving sophomore standing are part of the accountability formula for high schools.

The system tended to skew instruction. In the past, only reading counted. Now math, science, writing and social studies count, since they are part of the ISAT and Prairie State exam.

There was no push on higher achievers. The old accountability system meant little to schools whose students scored well above the probation cutoff. The new categories and incentives send a signal that higher achieving schools are expected to show progress, too.

Some students were left out. Under the old system, the test scores of special education students who took the ITBS did not count toward school accountability ratings. Now they will, which provides an incentive to schools to pay more attention to them.

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