Learning Versus Tests

University Testing

Studies by the Chicago Annenberg Research Project and the Consortium on Chicago School Research have found that students obtain higher scores in both reading and math in classes in which teachers engage in more interactive instruction, embed basic skills within more complex intellectual work, and move the students ahead rather than repeat the same materials year after year.


Using criteria for authentic intellectual work developed by Fred Newmann of the University of Wisconsin, researchers evaluated teacher assignments and student work in dozens of Chicago classrooms. Students doing more challenging work typically gained more than the national average on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS), while students in classrooms with low-quality assignments gained less than the national average. The differences amounted to 20% or more increased learning per year, as measured by the ITBS. (The ITBS does not assess more cognitively complex work which is more often taught in challenging classrooms.)


The results were consistent for lower-scoring as well as higher-scoring students. This finding repudiates Chicago’s widespread practice of consigning students who initially score poorly on the ITBS to classrooms that focus on low-level work, didactic instruction, and remediation.


Though a critical component for ensuring challenging instruction is high-quality professional development for teachers, another study by the same research groups found, “Nearly 75% of teachers [in Chicago Public Schools] experience low-quality or inconsistent professional development.”


Though one report is titled Authentic Intellectual Work and Standardized Tests: Conflict or Coexistence?, the authors failed to completely engage that question. Clearly, some Chicago teachers do not let the tests undermine higher-quality instruction–but too many appear to emphasize rote learning, at least partly in response to testing pressure. By basing accountability almost entirely on ITBS scores, Chicago undermines high quality curriculum, instruction and learning. Local test reformers have proposed an authentic accountability plan for the city’s schools, intended to replace reliance on the ITBS or other tests (see Examiner, Fall 2000).


In a separate report, Designs for Change (DfC), a Chicago school reform research and advocacy organization, demonstrated that 84 low-achieving schools which have made large and consistent gains on the ITBS reading tests since 1990 are typically characterized by local initiative, leadership, teamwork, and creativity. DfC will soon release another report using measures other than the flawed and limited ITBS scores to confirm that the 84 schools have shown real improvement.


The data contradict Chicago officials who have tried to maintain that schools using a drill-oriented scripted curriculum fare better on the standardized tests. DfC reports that schools on probation, which use a centrally-designed curriculum, made no greater score gains than other low-achieving, non-probation schools whose curriculum was not dictated.


• Consortium reports are available from Consortium, 1313 E. 60th St, Chicago, IL 60637; http://www.consortium-chicago.org:

* Authentic Intellectual Work and Standardized Tests: Conflict or Coexistence?;
* Instruction and Achievement in Chicago Elementary Schools; and
* Teacher Professional Development in Chicago.
* Designs for Change: (312) 236-7252; www.designsforchange.org