Schools are under increased pressure to improve student performance on tests mandated by the State of Illinois and the Chicago School Reform Board. In recent years, these tests have evolved into high-stakes exams for both schools and students. State and local officials use them to make decisions about school remediation, probation, reconstitution and, potentially, the permanent closing of schools. With respect to students, local officials use them to determine admission to magnet, classical, gifted and other special schools and programs, to determine promotion from one grade to the next, as well as placement within a school, and as a factor for graduation.
This increased emphasis on standardized testing has brought profound changes within many schools. This is especially true in schools that serve predominately minority students in communities with high incidences of poverty, crime, violence and drug abuse. These schools, more than others, operate under the threat of sanctions for poor performance.
There are many merits to standardized testing. Information gained from testing can help identify students’ strengths and weaknesses, which then can be used to plan instructional programs or determine the type of support services that students need. Standardized tests can help show whether students are learning what they are supposed to be learning. Tests can help assess the effectiveness of instructional strategies and programs and indicate how well a student, class, department, grade level, school, school district or state is doing compared to other students, classes, departments, etc. Although not originally designed for accountability, information gained from standardized tests can help measure the effectiveness of schools, school programs and school personnel.
A comprehensive high-stakes testing program can also keep schools, principals, teachers and students more focused on curriculum, instruction and learning. Prior to the recent emphasis on standardized tests, many schools and teachers did not pay enough attention to goals and standards or the school’s curriculum. Test results that could have helped improve instruction were often ignored.
A program that provides students with experience and preparation for taking standardized tests can better prepare them for the testing that they will encounter as they advance to higher levels of education and pursue careers. However, many schools are devoting an inordinate amount of instructional time and school resources to test preparation activities. In some schools, too much emphasis is placed on teaching the specific skills that are assessed on standardized tests. These skills often are taught in isolation and not as part of the whole curriculum. In too many instances, scarce school resources are directed toward the purchase of an array of test preparation materials at the expense of other needed instructional materials and supplies.
These problems are compounded by the fact that schools are required to administer more than one standardized test. Currently, schools must administer a state-mandated test at selected grade levels in reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies.
Preparation activities for the state testing often include workshops for teachers that provide information about the tests, test preparation materials and strategies on how best to prepare students for taking them. Many schools use practice tests and, just prior to the actual testing, conduct assemblies and other motivational activities.
This year, preparation for the newly named Illinois Standards Achievement Tests became more intensive because scores are to be included on high school students’ permanent records and on elementary students’ temporary records. Further, for the first time, state assessment results may be used in making promotion decisions and for accountability purposes at the school level.
Soon, every senior in an Illinois public high school will be required to take yet another state test. (Individual education plans may exclude special education students.) Those students who meet the criteria for excellence on the Prairie State Achievement Examination, now under development, will get a notation on their diplomas. Additionally, the percentage of a school’s students who achieve these notations will be reported in state-issued school report cards.
Then there are the tests required by the School Reform Board. Almost immediately after the current state testing that was concluded, many schools initiated similar preparation activities for the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS), used in elementary schools, and the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP), used in high schools. These tests carry even higher stakes, which include probation and reconstitution for schools, school admission and promotion for students, and continued employment for principals. As a result, the preparation is even more intense.
High schools also are required to administer end-of-semester course exams, the Chicago Academic Standards Exams (CASE), to freshmen and sophomores. In January, most freshmen and sophomores took four two-part tests. Current policy requires that the constructed-response sections be graded by teachers at the local schools, a time-consuming task. The CASE exams will be given again at the end of the second semester. Eventually, the CASE exams may be expanded to include all high school subjects required for graduation and to the upper grades in elementary schools.
Beyond mandated state and local exams, many schools have developed local assessments that are administered throughout the school year, typically every five weeks. These assessments are often used as a preparation activity for the mandated tests. While the five-week assessments represent additional test taking for students, the results are more apt to be used for instructional purposes, such as reteaching, grouping and regrouping students for instruction.
Mandating a series of high-stakes exams every school year works against the best interests of schools and the students they serve. It is incumbent on the leadership at the state, district and school level to carefully study the impact of current testing mandates and reach an agreement that reduces time spent on testing and test preparation. Ideally, the state, district and school would share data from a common assessment. Can the interests of the state and school district be so diverse that each must have its own series of mandated tests?