Original URL: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-0312210362dec21,1,2908572.story
Schools' drive to boost test scores takes a toll
Chicago Tribune
December 21, 2003
By Tracy Dell'Angela and Jodi S. Cohen, Tribune staff reporters.
Tribune staff reporter Darnell Little contributed to this report

The classroom of Burr Ridge 5th graders may be eagerly exploring the differences between prisms and cylinders, but they all know the real reason that they are in their second math class of the day instead of studying Spanish or computer technology.

"This class prepares us for what we're going to do for the ISAT math test," said Andrew Slater, 10, who considers math one of his best subjects. "The ISATs are important to everyone. It's the most important test we'll take until the one we take to get into college."

The creation of a class called ISAT math--in a school that has yet to run afoul of the federal No Child Left Behind reforms and is in a neighborhood of million-dollar homes--is evidence of the lengths to which even well-performing schools have gone to cope with the mounting pressure to improve scores on state tests.

One principal of a Downstate high school is sacrificing a semester of social studies starting next month to prep his 11th graders for their exam. A grade school in Brookfield is making sure kindergartners learn how to color in ovals and encouraging them to color pictures of themselves "doing their very best on test day."

Because federal reforms focus solely on reading and math, at some schools history is, well, history. Science time is being cut too. Money normally spent on class size reduction is paying for teachers to work extra hours to bolster the academic skills of the lowest-scoring pupils. Schools entice students to try harder with pizza parties and gift certificates.

The new emphasis on testing and accountability has inspired many schools to make substantial improvements in the way they teach.

But even well-intentioned efforts to improve kids' reading and math skills come with a price: less time and fewer resources to spend on other subjects. At the same time, critics charge, many schools are trying to raise scores through gimmicks and quick fixes that fail to address deeper problems.

"In the name of accountability, what we are doing is undermining most children's education," said Monty Neill, who recently wrote "Testing Our Children: A Report Card on State Assessment Systems," a comprehensive evaluation of all 50 state testing programs.

"Everything gets so standardized. There's nothing new allowed. Variety is driven out," Neill said. "The problem is schools are under this tremendous pressure to raise test scores very fast and the most common response is a shortcut. We're going to produce a generation of kids who are good at test taking but not much else."

State Supt. of Education Robert Schiller said he understands the pressure that is driving Illinois schools to use prizes and test drills to bring up scores. Such practices have long been common in other states and districts where high-stakes tests determine student grade advancement or graduation from high school.

But Schiller doesn't like it, and he doesn't think it works.

"It sends the message that you want to bribe students to do the right thing," Schiller said. "It's a mistake. You can't teach a kid reading comprehension in a week."

For a long time, it was only the state's lowest-performing schools that had to resort to such tactics. Schools with solid scores didn't need to pull 5th graders out of science or Spanish to drill them on questions that might appear on the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests--or schedule pep rallies for 11th graders about to take the Prairie State Achievement Exam.

But federal education reform has changed all that. Under the No Child Left Behind Law enacted last year, schools are held accountable not just for overall performance but for that of their most vulnerable populations of students--low-income, disabled, limited-English and minority.

Educators trying to meet the requirements walk a fine line between "teaching to the test" and honing crucial academic skills that the tests are designed to measure.

At Burr Ridge Middle School, school leaders already have started overhauling the curriculum--to eliminate duplication across grades, fill teaching gaps in key subjects, and get rid of "pet projects" that have nothing to do with state standards.

"Dinosaurs are not assessed on the ISATs, so they had to go," said Principal Debra LeBlanc.

She also created the special ISAT math and reading classes this fall--and does not believe her students are being shortchanged.

"We decided to call the [classes] what they are: preparation for the ISATs. I didn't want to give it a fluffy name because there's nothing cutesy about it. This is what it all comes down to," LeBlanc said.

"I struggle with that question: Do you feel like you're teaching to the test? But this is the reality. It is not going away. And I think it's a good thing because it has stepped up our accountability."

Burr Ridge parent Jennifer Mihalkanin was initially taken aback when she saw the test classes listed among the new courses at her son Jake's school. But after spending some time observing the ISAT classes--both taught by energetic teachers through engaging, hands-on lessons--she's concluded that the extra emphasis on two core subjects makes sense.

"The kids need to have a feel for what's on the test," said Mihalkanin, whose son gets top grades and exceeds standards on the state exams. "Other schools are going to be doing the same thing and just hiding it. I know they lost Spanish and computer technology, but something had to give."

In Carpentersville, disappointing test scores meant a whole lot had to give. Elementary school students in District 300 now spend three hours a day in reading classes, compared with an average of 146 minutes statewide. The sacrifice? History and science classes average only 19 minutes each.

Middle schools in East Aurora and Addison this year added a "math lab" class, a second period of math that focuses on geometry, which is emphasized on standardized tests. At Waldo Middle School in Aurora, the semester-long class is a requirement that takes the place of drama, art, foods or foreign language.

"Our math scores were unbelievably disappointing. We had to do something," said Lenore Hernandez, principal at Waldo, where only 30 percent of the 8th graders passed math tests this year.

At Lincoln Elementary in Brookfield, success on state tests is so important that the principal laminates the school's report card and displays it near the entrance. The school's overall passing rates over the past five years have bounced around the mid-50s to the mid-60s, but the school this year saw some dramatic gains in its math scores and in the reading performance of its Latino students.

Principal Nancy Akin attributed some of the improvements to curriculum changes, individualized lessons and after-school homework clubs. But she also said it's never too early to start stressing the importance of these tests to students and parents.

"We start teaching test-taking strategies in kindergarten because when do you ever learn to color in an oval?" said Akin, adding that teachers in higher grades assign sample questions as homework.

Driven to desperation by lagging scores and student apathy, high schools are trying anything and everything to boost performance. Most schools devote some of the day to test preparation--ranging from a few weeks during study hall to a semester-long class bolstering tested skills.

Educators also make appeals to students' pride, greed and guilt.

At Shepard High in Palos Heights, 107 seniors got out of taking finals last week as a reward for meeting or exceeding standards in all subjects on the Prairie State exam they took last spring as juniors. The incentive seems to have worked--the school's passing rate jumped from 45 percent to 52 percent--and will be offered again to this year's test-takers, the principal said.

The reward was a bit more tangible at Hall Township High in Spring Valley. Thirty-six students who exceeded standards in at least one subject got either a television, a DVD player, a VCR, a CD player or a $20 gift certificate. The higher the score, the bigger the gift. Two students who exceeded standards in all five categories got a TV/VCR.

"We thought it was a way we could encourage the kids to perform at their highest level," said principal Patti Lunn, who paid for the $1,000 in prizes through a privately raised fund.

To help improve ISAT scores, every 3rd grader at Twain Elementary in Kankakee stays in school an extra 90 minutes three days a week--essentially extending their school day.

The extra help apparently has paid off--the school had the third-largest one-year test score jump in the state. Sixty-one percent of students met standards in 2003, compared with 33 percent the year before. Test scores had hovered around 30 percent the previous four years.

"We smoked them. Mark my words: We will go to 80 percent," said Principal Greg Merrill, hired at the school last year to improve test scores. He said he goes into classrooms once a month and tries to get students excited about the ISAT. "I say, `Remember our focus is to do better than last year.' We push the ISAT. It's a high-stakes game."

Copyright 2003, Chicago Tribune