Chicago Testing Flap Ends In Compromise With State
Chicago schools chief Paul G. Vallas said he "gave a little, and got a lot" from a compromise he made with state education officials after threatening not to administer state tests that the district's 430,000 students ended up taking last week.
Mr. Vallas had long complained that the state's February testing date failed to give students the benefit of a full year of schooling, and last month declared that he would give the Illinois Standard Achievement Tests to students in May—four months after the rest of the state.
State officials said Chicago administrators were making excuses for low student achievement, and warned that the district could jeopardize all of its state aid if it followed through with the threat.
The standoff was sparked in part by an article in the Chicago Tribune indicating that state officials planned to use this year's and last year's test scores to reinstate the state warning list for schools with low test scores—a move that could potentially label 444 of 591 Chicago schools with what Mr. Vallas called "the mark of Cain."
But on Jan. 27, less than two days after the sparring began, Mr. Vallas and state Superintendent of Education Glenn W. "Max" McGee, along with state school board Chairman Ronald J. Gidwitz and Chicago school board President Gery J. Chico, reached an agreement.
They decided that the warning list of low-performing schools would be reinstated in the fall of 2001, instead of this coming fall. In addition, the state and local officials agreed that the ISAT would be administered statewide in April in the spring of 2001—giving students and schools some extra time to prepare for the exams.
In return, Chicago elementary students took the ISAT last week, along with schools throughout the state. The state also recently agreed to let Chicago schools use the high school version of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills—the exam used for the city's own accountability program—instead of the 10th grade ISAT, to fulfill testing requirements for schools that accept federal Title I money.
"This was a statewide issue, not just a Chicago issue," said Mr. Vallas, who insinuated at one point in the public dispute that Mr. Gidwitz had gotten his position because of his political connections and personal wealth. "There were a number of superintendents who backed us up. I'm just glad that cooler heads prevailed."
For their part, state officials say that they want to devise a more comprehensive system through which they can identify and help low-performing schools and reward those that show progress. But because the state officials are unlikely to push for legislation to make such changes until the spring of next year, Mr. McGee said, it makes sense to give schools more time to get used to the new state tests before rewards or sanctions kick in.
"I don't think anyone was tremendously comfortable with the [shorter] transition time, because we do have tough new standards, [and] we do have a rigorous test," Mr. McGee said. "Deciding on a lengthened transition plan was a good move. If you look at who gave up what, that was a good idea for the state."
But the state superintendent does dispute Mr. Vallas' assertions that although the current state tests are given in February, they are designed to cover a whole year's worth of material. Educators set the benchmarks on the test to account for the fact that they were administered in February, Mr. McGee said, and will likely have to adjust them when the exams are given in April next year.
"He's simply wrong on that," Mr. McGee said of Mr. Vallas.
Still, he added: "I'm very happy that we have a good solution to this. I just wish it hadn't degenerated to the personal level."
Vol. 19, Issue 22, Page 18