Every morning at 10, Evelyn Gonzalez tells her 1st-graders at Waters Elementary School in Lincoln Square to pull out their journals, thick Mead composition notebooks, and write.

On this warm Thursday in May, she lets the children pick their topics. “Put down anything you want, but please don’t tell me about how you watched TV yesterday, because I already know you did that. Be creative.”

However, Gonzalez does direct them to use at least three words from a “word wall” of fresh vocabulary (“eat,” “team,” “some”) posted on a bulletin board in the back of the classroom, or from other words hanging on colored, laminated boards above their desks.

As Gonzalez circulates, Carlos, in a desk by the window, leans down to examine a dead bug on the floor. “Carlos, forget about the bug,” Gonzalez advises. “Life goes on.”

Later, Gonzalez pulls out a manilla folder brimming with work Carlos has done over the past nine months. Several times a quarter, both Gonzalez and her youngsters select items they want included in such portfolios—excerpts from their journals, math assignments, drawings, science papers.

“I’m looking for stuff that shows how they’re doing, and they are putting in stuff they’re proud of,” says Gonzalez, a graduate of Northeastern Illinois University who began her teaching career at Waters in 1998. For Gonzalez and most teachers at Waters, these constitute the best test of what their pupils have and have not learned.

Last fall, Carlos was crunching his words together, his portfolio shows. In January, the problem remained. In February, Carlos penned a report on the movie “Toy Story 3,” “but there’s no sense to what he’s saying,” notes Gonzalez, “and he isn’t using words from the word wall.” In March, a paper titled “Fanash lain” in pink and yellow letters concerned a foot race. Carlos still crunched letters together, and there were no capitals except for an “L” that popped up in the middle of a sentence. “Carlos is having a hard time,” remarked Gonzalez. “It’s clear he needs to go to summer school.”

In contrast, Aldin, a recent immigrant from Bosnia, has made visible progress. In October, a sentence Aldin tried to write—”I was playing with my Pokemon cards”—came out: “Iw pw my Pkoon.” In January, Gonzalez had bestowed an A-plus on an exercise in beginning fractions, and the boy was coloring beautifully. “I get a toy,” Aldin wrote in March. “I has a red past.” Said Gonzalez, “You can see improvement. You can tell the difference. This is good for a kid who hasn’t been here a year.”

Meanwhile, Stacy Rubio started strong and has remained strong. In January, she wrote: “My baby sister mak me Laugh when she tsz [for “tickles”] me.” In April: “Me and my mom and dad and sister plant flowers in my back yard.” The April composition, written as part of a “literature circle,” a sort of fledgling book-discussion group, is accompanied by a drawing of flowers and a stick figure wearing a mantilla.

“Stacey is working at grade level,” remarks Gonzalez. “She’s ready to move to second year. I can look at this and see it.” Gonzalez, who’s keyed to a red-covered book of Chicago academic standards, says she can “completely tell” the learning level of her students by consulting their portfolios. “I’ve spent so many days with these kids,” she says. “I know them inside and out. If somebody else came in to judge them, they wouldn’t have a clue.”

In recent years Waters School has turned toward a more progressive curriculum and embraced multiple forms of student assessment—portfolios and performance tasks, as well as standardized tests.

“Standardized tests are one way of assessing, but there are other ways,” thinks Hermelinda Garcia, a 7th-grade teacher at Waters. “I can remember when I took the Iowas. I was a nervous kid. I had butterflies, and maybe I didn’t do as well as I might have. There should be some balance between these tests, which show the intellectual side of kids, and other measures which show the creative side.”

While many Chicago teachers and principals grumble about the rule of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, no one is openly revolting. Instead, a small and slowly growing group of schools, neighborhood facilities like Waters as well as magnet and charter schools, is experimenting with forms of so-called “authentic assessment,” in which judgments are tied more closely to what they are teaching. The brigade of authentic assessors hope that their methods will one day at least augment high-stakes standardized tests.

Traditional no more

Waters School occupies a high-ceilinged, three-story brick building dating from 1915. A predominance of its 600 students are low-income. Nearly 70 percent are Hispanic—Waters offers bilingual instruction up through 4th grade—and several dozen youngsters hail from families of Bosnian refugees.

When the local school council hired Tomás Revollo as principal in 1992, the school was altogether traditional in tone. But Revollo, who had led an LSC implementation team at the central office in the first blush of reform, encouraged innovation among parents and staff. Council member Peter Leki established a school garden adjoining the field house, and now in the spring every classroom farms its own plot with asters, marigolds, tomatoes and corn.

Under Revollo, Waters joined the Center for City Schools, located at National-Louis University and affiliated with the Illinois Writing Project. The center stresses classroom libraries, lots of in-class writing—at Waters the whole school writes in journals for a half-hour each morning—and “literature circles.” Waters abandoned textbooks except as resources, relying instead on novels and nonfiction books. The school is filled with colorful, student-created murals; a shady garden with homemade mosaic benches adjoins the front door.

In 1995, primary teacher Sally Ranson and some colleagues won a $5,000 grant from the Quest Center of the Chicago Teachers Union to experiment with thematic units on topics such as Cinderella and women’s history. “We had a wonderful parade about the women,” recollects Ranson, now director of a Casa Central preschool program.

Kids feel ownership

Another result was portfolios of student work. “Our goal was that the portfolios would go from kindergarten through 8th grade,” says Ranson, “so that kids who graduated could see all they’d done.” Enough teachers eventually signed on to the idea that, today, the folders indeed follow the students all the way up the ladder. “Portfolios definitely give kids a sense of ownership,” says Gonzalez. Stacy, for one, values hers. “It tells me how I’m doing on my own,” she says one morning, sitting in a Waters stairwell. “Instead of giving my work to Miss Gonzalez—and it being thrown out—it becomes mine.”

Stacy’s mother Elsy Rubio says her daughter delights in her journal—”she definitely talks about it when she gets home from school.” Moreover, Rubio appreciates Gonzalez, reviewing Stacey’s portfolio, along with her grades, at twice-yearly report card pickup sessions. “I also got to take Stacey’s journal home,” she says, “and it was nice to compare her entries with those from three months ago.”

Teacher Hermelinda Garcia terms portfolios “a treasure chest of thought,” and she uses them to determine class groupings and marks on report cards. “You look through the work,” she says. “Say a kid doesn’t do well on a traditional test, but you can see the same understanding with a comic strip. Well, they’ve comprehended the material, only they’ve done it their way.”

The portfolios of upper-grade students at Waters burst with material, trailing back years. Britten Piedrasanta, one of Garcia’s students who’s native to Waters, opens a red binder to reveal a large patch of her entire academic life within its pages: a 3rd-grade book report; a snippet of journal from an early summer vacation; a test on “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” on which she had earned an A-plus; a 6th-grade science test on gravity and kilometers; and a recent poster from a demonstration on how to make a salad.

“Every time I look at my stuff, I see how I’ve progressed,” says Britten, who wants to become a forensic scientist and boasts Iowa reading and math scores two years over national norms. “My writing has improved a lot, and so has my work on projects. I’ve become more professional.”

Waters hasn’t created rubrics, which are standardized descriptions of what kind of work deserves what kind of score. But it has crafted an alternative report card without letter grades. Instead of earning a C or D in math, for example, a low-performing Waters student receives this message along with the number 2: “Uses minimal mathematical terms to understand operations, concepts, and processes to find a solution to a problem.”

A 2-level writing student would get this: “The writing reflects a poor connection to the theme; many grammatical errors are present.” The Waters report card is optional for Waters teachers, but 80 percent of them use it instead of the Board of Education card. (Gonzalez has relied on the standard report card, but has spent the summer with her 1st-grade colleague building their own personally designed mechanism.)

Revollo has become convinced that standardized tests, as the single one measure of performance, aren’t worth much. “I don’t believe in them,” he says. He refuses to run the Iowas below the 3rd grade. “The board has made them optional, and a young child shouldn’t have to take them,” he says. “They are no way to assess children—that should come from daily work.”

Like Waters, other Chicago public schools have been toying with authentic assessment, which also is called direct assessment. Teachers at Mitchell School in West Town have come up with their own curriculum based on state guidelines. Reading is emphasized—students read for an hour and 10 minutes each morning—and teachers maintain portfolios of their students’ work, including math papers, oral reports and results from the state-mandated U.S. Constitution test. Inside are rubric-scale numbers, judging performance in various learning areas. The numbers figure into report cards and progress reports that go home seven times a year—nearly twice as frequently as prescribed by the Board of Education.

Inter-American Magnet School in Lakeview delivers 80 percent of its instruction in Spanish and has always exhibited unconventional ways. Teachers put children’s work, including videos, into portfolios, and teachers don’t give grades until 6th grade. “Before then, it’s more descriptive,” relates Principal Eva Helwing. Younger students receive an alternative report card with more descriptive measures than letter grades and with space for parent comments. But in 7th and 8th grade—the years before high school—”we bow to reality and start giving out regular grades,” says bilingual lead teacher Cindy Zucker.

For five years, Inter-American refused to give the Iowas at 3rd grade or lower. “We felt the board was over-testing,” says Zucker, pointing to the state-mandated ISAT (formerly the IGAP) tests, the Iowas and La Prueba, an exam given to bilingual youngsters. In 1997, however, Inter-American was ordered to deliver the Iowas to 3rd-graders because, says Zucker, the scores were needed to figure out which students had to attend summer school. “Initially [Schools CEO Paul] Vallas said we could go with authentic assessment,” says Zucker, “but then we got a direct order from his office on the 3rd-grade tests.”

Many of the Board of Education’s 15 charter schools, which may diverge from some but not all rules and regulations, also buck the usual forms of assessment. Students at three levels at Perspectives Charter School on the Near South Side must negotiate so-called “passages” in order to advance. Eighth-graders do a year-long project comparing two cultures. Sophomores, who intern at outside agencies, must originate both a plan to execute some form of social change and a time line to make it work. To graduate, seniors are obliged to craft a six-year plan for their lives.

The Academy of Communications and Technology (ACT) Charter School in West Garfield Park has students at three levels—8th, 10th and 12th grades—progress by presenting “collections of work,” termed COWs. COWs contain selections “that are kids’ favorites or ones which they grew from the most,” says ACT co-director Sarah Howard. COWs in each of six subject areas—from math to foreign language—are passed to a three-judge panel, which includes an outside community member, who discuss the submission with a student for half an hour before passing judgment.

“This is a different way to challenge students, and it’s very doable,” insists Howard. However, only four 10th-graders put forward COWs this year, and the junior class has dwindled by half, to 30 youngsters, as many have transferred to other schools rather than meeting ACT’s standards or to seek their fortunes in a more structured setting. (ACT also sends home its own home-brewed report card, with letter grades, every six or seven weeks.)

Not surprisingly, those at ACT bristle at the obligation of standardized tests. “We are required to give the Iowas and other tests,” says Howard. “But tests should be driven by the curriculum—and assessment and curriculum should be linked. If I give a kid a test, I should have taught them the material. The Iowas are limited—it’s one day of testing on two subjects [reading and math] and doesn’t reflect a student’s work at school.”

ACT had assumed that its curriculum would naturally boost scores. “We were a little idealistic,” says Howard. “The first year the kids didn’t do so well. The second year we did more test preparation, and there was improvement.” Feeling on the right track, the school this year invested $10,000 in test preparation aids—and then saw its scores drop. ACT’s Iowa scores show that only 17 percent of its 6th- through 8th-graders perform at or above national norms. On the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP), 10 percent of 9th- and 10th-graders exceed national norms in reading, and 13 percent do in math.

‘Can’t ignore tests’

“We aren’t convinced that tests will tell you the future of a kid,” says Michelle Smith, the other ACT co-director. “A kid may have a high score but a horrible attitude, unable to present himself in an interview and therefore unemployable. It’s important to present your ideas well, to have a positive attitude and to be technologically literate.”

Yet ACT students themselves realize the power of standardized tests as gatekeepers, at least in Chicago. “When the test results came out this spring,” reports Smith, “the kids were at my door, worried about their scores.”

“Kids in Chicago know that tests determine their futures and their summers,” says Inter-American’s Cindy Zucker. “It’s in the air and the water.” At Inter-American, as at ACT, teachers do set aside time to prepare youngsters to take the Iowas. Whether for that reason or because overall instruction has improved, Inter-American’s Iowa scores in reading and math have risen steadily for most of the last nine years.

“We don’t even think about the Iowas,” says Tomás Revollo at Waters. “If we teach our children correctly, they will do just fine, including on standardized tests. We don’t do practice tests here.” Yet he concedes that instructors do go over vocabulary, spelling and basics on test-taking. When Revollo came to Waters, 26 percent of youngsters were reading at or above the national average, where today 36 percent are reading at the average. The math increase has been less pronounced, though 37 percent exceed the national norm today. (One-quarter of Waters students were exempted from the ITBS as bilingual students.)

Some 44 3rd-, 6th- and 8th-graders at Waters attended summer school to bring their Iowa scores high enough to reach board minimums and so move to the next grade. (Seven didn’t make it, even with new relaxed standards for promotion.) In addition, some 75 1st- and 2nd-graders, among them Carlos and Aldin (at his parents’ request), attended summer school after not having succeeded on a so-called miscue analysis reading test the Board of Education is requiring for 1st- and 2nd-graders. (To administer the test, a teacher has a student read aloud from a book, and the teacher checks for errors in syntax and comprehension.)

As frustrated as Revollo is about the School Board’s emphasis on standardized tests, he’s equally frustrated by the extent to which standardized tests govern both public perceptions and family decision making. In May, he attended a meeting of the Ravenswood Manor Improvement Assn., which represents a wealthier section of his attendance area that sends few children to his school. A woman asked him at what percentage his students performed on the Iowas.

“Our percentages aren’t what they should be because we don’t have your children,” replied Revollo. “You send me 20 kids like your daughter, our teachers are so good that her grade will be performing at the 90th percentile.”

Revollo still takes umbrage at the woman’s question: “We’re saying at Waters that we want to take the school out to the world, and the world into the school—that that’s what matters. It does to the people from Ravenswood Manor, too. They are the first to take their children to the beach, the zoo and to Wisconsin. Or to the Goodman Theater. But all they want to know concerns our test scores.”

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