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Published in Print: February 10, 1999, as Chicago Schools Take Aim at Teacher Newspaper

Chicago Schools Take Aim at Teacher Newspaper

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The Chicago school system has taken legal action against a newspaper run by dissident teachers, which last month printed entire sections of the district's new $1.3 million high school tests.

The breach of test security by the newspaper Substance means that teachers will have to write new test questions for the exams, which were given Jan. 15 in the city's 74 high schools in a pilot test.

A temporary restraining order obtained by the district last month prohibited Substance from publishing any additional sections of the Chicago Academic Standards Exams, or CASE. The paper printed the entire tests in English, algebra, world studies, and U.S. history.

George Schmidt, the paper's editor and an English teacher at Bowen High School in Chicago, had threatened to publish the science exams as well, but agreed not to after the district went to court, said Phil Hansen, the chief accountability officer for the district.

The tests, which reflect the system's academic standards and were written by 70 local teachers, will require many teachers to raise the level of instruction in their classrooms, Mr. Hansen noted.

"You expect there to be criticism," he said. "The only thing you can do is be as collaborative and open as possible. You'd never expect this kind of sabotage."

Mr. Schmidt could not be reached for comment. But the Chicago Sun-Times quoted him as calling the tests "sophomoric," "mindless," and "a curricular atrocity."

Paul G. Vallas

Paul G. Vallas, the district's chief executive officer, said he was moving to fire Mr. Schmidt, who has been reassigned to a job in the central office in the meantime.

"The high schools are being reformed," Mr. Vallas said, ''and a number of high school teachers don't like being held accountable for high standards."

No Favorites

Over the years, Substance has been a thorn in the side of both the administration and the Chicago Teachers Union. The paper has complained, for example, about the perquisites enjoyed by top union and district officials.

Pam Massarsky, the union's recording secretary, said Mr. Schmidt hadn't been in touch with the union. But if his job is threatened "in any way for any reason," she said, "we would provide him with the appropriate representation to guarantee his due process rights."

The CASE exams have been under development for 18 months. They are to be administered twice a year to 9th and 10th graders, Mr. Hansen said. Over the next three to four years, test scores will make up as much as 25 percent of students' semester grades.

The school system spent $1.3 million to write the tests, including $500,000 donated by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to pay for test consultants.

Test questions were written by 20 Chicago teachers and are aligned with the system's academic standards for high schools. Panels of teachers will have to be called in to write questions to replace those published in the newspaper. In its lawsuit, the district maintains that starting over with new tests would cost $1.3 million.

Chicago high schools, including Bowen High, followed strict security procedures for giving the pilot exams, Mr. Hansen said. Officials don't know how Mr. Schmidt got copies of the exams outside his subject area.

Under Review

Despite the setback, teachers, and administrators will now review the results of the January pilot tests and suggest ways to improve them, Mr. Hansen said. Another round of tests is scheduled to be given in May.

Ms. Massarsky said union leaders planned to meet this week with Mr. Vallas to convey teachers' concerns. Many believe students were tested on information that hadn't been introduced yet, she said, while others complained that the pilot tests were given too close to winter break and a major snowstorm that closed the schools.

Barbara Radner, the director of the center for urban education at DePaul University in Chicago, said she believes the tests are already having a positive effect. "What I like is that everybody is talking about curriculum and how to assess kids," she said. "But not everybody is talking politely."

Vol. 18, Issue 22, Page 6

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