Jul 31, 2011 by

Dr. Kathleen P. Loftus
Much celebrating and high-fiving has been taking place amongst Chicago Public School hierarchy and Chicago city government this summer for their having purportedly managed to raise students’ test scores by “historic” levels, according to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. It’s unclear whether those busy tooting their own horns are doing so because they actually believe the data, or because they know they have succeeded in fooling most of the voting public once again. Before we rally around to hand out gold stars too quickly, let me share with you some of the ways I observed firsthand that this district and others manage to very skillfully manipulate student performance data to their advantage.

First, the “grade levels” being celebrated for outstanding achievement were only 3 rd , 5 th , 8 th , and 11 th grades, those subject to NCLB scrutiny. But, this does not necessarily represent the academic performance of the majority of CPS’s 8-, 11-, 14-, and 17-year olds. Why? Because, among other things, CPS eliminated “social promotion” in 1996, not an altogether bad move in and of itself. However, in making this effort, theoretically to increase school accountability, CPS now continues to express its student achievement performance as though this adjustment never took place, hoping most of us will fail to put two and two together.

Mayor Daley and CPS Chief, Arne Duncan, both giddily cited the schools’ most recent performance results as being “the largest we have ever seen,” with Mr. Duncan adding, “We can go anywhere from here.” I would suggest he start with his Office of Student Enrollment. Remember, the entire point of government-mandated standardized achievement testing is to determine how well schools are doing at educating all their students who started as 5 year olds at the same time. By holding back students who fail to make the grade, and then taking credit for the achievement of those who do as being representative of the whole group, they are only exacerbating the problem.

Obviously, to anyone who stops to think about it, the students who failed to learn to read by the end of 2 nd grade are not likely to be included in the achievement scores of their schools’ 3 rd graders the following year. Many “5 th ” and “8 th ” grade classes are often comprised of students with 1- to 4-year age ranges. But, the most deceiving statistic of all is that of the “11 th grade” scores, representing the only official federal performance measure of most American high schools. Unlike grades 1 through 8, high schoolers are subject to more than mere retention. They must have actually earned enough credits, (that is, passed enough classes), to attain “11 th ” grade status in order to be included in this assessment in the first place. More than 1/2 of all students who begin CPS schools as 1 st graders never attain this grade level. Meaning, most high school achievement measures fail to consider the learning or teaching performance of more than 1/2 the students enrolled. Further, due to the significant number of students who are retained at least once, those being tested at “11 th ” grade may range in age from 16 to 20, with all of their non-achieving same-aged peers also excluded, hardly a homogeneous group in terms of “standardized” achievement measurement.

This single indicator of high school performance also fails to consider the growing number of students who leave school before ever reaching the 11 th grade, with many never setting foot in high school at all. Further, it may be no coincidence that the only measure of high school performance occurs after the age of 16 when, in many states, students are legally permitted to drop out.
Even more disturbing, however, were some practices I witnessed firsthand as a State monitor of CPS schools, a practice I can only assume is still occurring in at least some of their 602 facilities. Schools wishing to avoid being singled-out by CPS hierarchy for failing to demonstrate adequate growth would intentionally withhold the credits of certain known poor-achievers, particularly students with disabilities or non-native English speakers, causing them to miss being categorized as “11 th graders” by a credit or two, but then ensuring that they were given the opportunity to “catch up” their credits the following year. Unfortunately, allowing students to leapfrog from being “10 th graders” to”12th graders” in this manner enabled many of them to circumvent the standardized testing requirement altogether. Illinois has eliminated some of this practice by now requiring that all students take the State’s 11 th grade exam as a requirement of graduation, although many fail to do so until the end of their “12 th grade” year, (yet their scores are then included and counted with the scores of their school’s “11 th graders”).

It’s not that testing some students at a later point in their development is necessarily bad. Many states have adopted high school exit exams which students of varying ages may complete, being granted diplomas only when they have demonstrated sufficient proficiency. What is at issue here, however, is that CPS and others are celebrating the achievement of only the “good apples,” and only after those that are still a little “green” have been eliminated from the “bowl.” (If anything, they are also including those “apples” that may be a little “overripe” in terms of age.)
Prior to NCLB, many state testing rules included the wording “Students will be tested with their same- aged ” peers.” With the flurry of efforts toward meeting these new federal guidelines, however, “grade levels” became the new performance standard of the day. Unfortunately, there exist today in an overwhelming number of America ‘s schools, an astounding number of 10-year old “3 rd graders” and 15-year old “8 th graders” who will never become “11 th graders.” I would propose that some means of reporting student performance by age level, and not merely artificial ” grade levels” is needed, as well as the sharing of data related to the progress of students throughout their ascension up the “grade-level” ladder. This is needed to both account for those students who truly are left behind, while also preventing artificially-inflated achievement indicators. Until America begins accounting honestly for all its students, its educational leaders have no right to boast. Sadly, the millions of children still being left behind simply must be acknowledged and counted.
Orginally published July 31, 2006
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.