Assessment

Chicago Panel to Devise Curriculum-Based Tests to Guide Teaching

By Lynn Olson — January 08, 2003 3 min read
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Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools, has convened an advisory group to create an assessment system that would work alongside high-stakes tests to provide district teachers with better feedback on how to improve curriculum and teaching.

The Commission on Improving Curriculum-Based Assessment, announced in mid- December, is led by Samuel J. Meisels, the president of the Erikson Institute, a Chicago-based graduate school in child development, and Donald M. Stewart, the president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community foundations.

The goal of the 21-member commission—which includes district personnel, principals, teachers’ union representatives, community leaders, and academics—is to devise a system of assessments from preschool through high school that “will be much more useful immediately to teachers in the classroom to inform instruction,” said Kate Nolan, the staff director and a research associate at the Erikson Institute.

Mr. Meisels added: “The high-stakes tests are going to stay because it’s not discretionary to use them. But they don’t do a very good job of helping teachers think about instruction. They can’t account for the diversity of ways that kids think and learn.”

In contrast, Mr. Meisels said, curriculum-based assessments occur throughout the school year. They focus more on profiles of learning for individual students than on reporting group results. And they can help teachers think about what comes next in the classroom.

A Change in Culture

For example, the Work Sampling System, which Mr. Meisels developed, relies on a combination of teacher checklists, portfolios of student work, and summary reports to track the progress of children in preschool through grade 6. It’s now used in more than a dozen states.

The Chicago announcement reflects the commitment of Mr. Duncan and his chief education officer, Barbara Eason-Watkins, to focus the 437,000- student district more sharply on improving classroom instruction.

“We’re really excited about it because we really think Chicago is moving in a good direction in terms of assessment,” said Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a parent education and advocacy group based in Chicago.

“We really are looking for ways that classroom-based assessment can be used in an accountability system, in addition to its importance for evaluating individual children,” she said. “And, so, we see this as a potential model for a really good assessment system that includes multiple measures.”

Last month, Mr. Duncan unveiled a new accountability system that recognizes schools for the gains they make with students and provides $10,000 cash awards to those that make the most progress, rather than just singling out low-performing schools for intervention. The new system also relies on a broader array of data to rate schools. (“New Accountability Plan Rewards Chicago Schools for Showing Score Gains,” Dec. 11, 2002.)

Over the next 15 months, the commission is charged with crafting an assessment system, drawing up a plan for its implementation and budget, and suggesting policy changes at the district and state levels to carry it out. The commission also will seek the advice of local communities. Ms. Nolan predicted that it would take two to three years to get the new system fully up and running.

“We’re probably going to have to effect a culture change in the schools for this to really be successful,” Mr. Meisels said.

“It’s going to entail that people believe this is as important as the preparation for those high-stakes tests or, better yet, that this is a way to prepare people for those tests, because better instruction will result in better outcomes.”

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