In 1992, test scores were low, especially in predominantly African-American schools; not much interest was exhibited until Argie Johnson came to town and became superintendent. University outreach programs had been established, but accountability for student achievement was not stressed. Outreach programs had been in some schools for years without academic improvement.
In 1995, I joined the new CPS team to advance student achievement even for the minority poor. I support the use of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, and I am against retention, social promotion and the referral of masses of African-American males to special education. The ACT and SAT are guardians of the gateway to opportunity at institutions of higher education. It is good that Illinois will require all high school juniors to take the ACT. It is great that CPS intends to offer training for teachers in the commercial Kaplan ACT preparation program and to administer two ACT pretests. Most middle-class people are prepping their children to pass the ACT and SAT, and these plans should narrow the opportunity gap for the minority poor.
The retention/social promotion debate is tied up in a conundrum: Neither measure helps all students; one or the other may help certain students. What good is it to say that the socially promoted did better than or the same as the retained? What percentage of each group shows up in jail, goes to college or acquires employment? What happens to the students who do not keep up or learn at the same rate or in the same way that the other students in a class learn? Do we fail them? Should we pass them on without the requisite skills necessary for success at the next level? Do we refer them to special education as learning disabled? Does anybody in his right mind really believe that God made this many LD African-American males?
The answer resides in the teaching-learning process. From many studies of high-achieving predominantly African-American schools, it is clear that high expectations, strong instructional leadership, emphasis on academics, monitoring and a climate conducive to learning are necessary to pass the required tests.
Universities and school administrators must ensure that teachers know their content. There are too many temporarily certified and uncertified teachers in some schools.
There is disproportionate enrollment of special education students in some high schools where there is inadequate staffing and uncertified staff for inclusion.
Often students’ individual needs are not being met. Teachers must be helped to write lesson plans that attempt to address students who are accelerated as well as those who need reinforcement. Principals must provide instructional leadership to their teachers. At one school where the achievement scores have been declining, the 3rd-grade teachers have convinced the principal that they do not need even to write lesson plans.
Materials must be available to teachers to address the needs of all students as they attempt to learn their daily lessons. Waiting for the ISAT or ITBS to spot trouble is much too late. Teachers must use better tools to monitor learning so they are better informed as to student progress. These tools may include authentic assessment, but the issues of validity and reliability should not be swept under the rug. Because of racism in the society, there must be controls for subjectivity.
Lastly, teachers and principals must believe that the students can learn. To think a student is inferior because of his race or ethnicity is racist.
The present condition reminds me of the fight for desegregation. After the case was won, there was a lot of nostalgia among the crusaders about the “good ol’ days.” No one wanted to return to separate and unequal. But everyone longed for the spirit of unity brought to bear against the pariah status of African Americans. So now, folks want to help all of the children learn, but their focus is on throwing out the test (the end) rather than improving the quality of instruction (the means). Retention, social promotion and the high referral of certain groups to special education are symptoms of the inadequacy of the means. For those who think the test is not the end, remember that students some day will have to take tests to acquire jobs and to enter college. These are truly high stakes.