Academic journal article Education Next

High Stakes in Chicago: Did Chicago's Rising Test Scores Reflect Genuine Academic Improvement? (Research)

Academic journal article Education Next

High Stakes in Chicago: Did Chicago's Rising Test Scores Reflect Genuine Academic Improvement? (Research)

Article excerpt

AS THE FIRST LARGE URBAN SCHOOL DISTRICT TO INTRODUCE a comprehensive accountability system, Chicago provides an exceptional case study of the effects of high-stakes testing--a reform strategy that will become omnipresent as the No Child Left Behind Act is implemented nationwide, One of the most serious criticisms of high-stakes testing is that it leads to "inflated" test scores that do not truly reflect students' knowledge or skills and therefore cannot be generalized to other tests, This article summarizes my research on whether the Chicago accountability system produced "real" gains in student achievement,

The first step in Chicago's accountability effort was to end the practice of "social promotion," whereby students were advanced to the next grade regardless of achievement level. Under the new policy, students in the 3rd, 6th, and 8th grades were required to meet minimum standards in reading and mathematics on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) in order to step up to the next grade. Students who didn't meet the standard were required to attend a six-week summer-school program, after which they took the exams again. Those who passed were able to move on to the next grade. Students who again failed to meet the standard were required to repeat the grade, with the exception of 15-year-olds who attended newly created "transition" centers. (Many students in special education and bilingual programs were exempt from these requirements.) In the fall of 1997, roughly 20 percent of Chicago's 3rd graders and 10 to 15 percent of 6th and 8th graders were held back.

Meanwhile, Chicago also instituted an "academic probation" program designed to hold teachers and schools accountable for student achievement. Schools in which fewer than 15 percent of students scored at or above national norms on the ITBS reading exam were placed on probation. If they did not exhibit sufficient improvement, these schools could be reconstituted, with teachers and school administrators dismissed or reassigned. In the 1996-'97 school year, 71 elementary schools were placed on academic probation. While only recently has Chicago actually reconstituted several schools, as early as 1997 teachers and administrators in probationary schools reported being extremely worried about their job security, and staff in other schools reported a strong desire to avoid probation.

High Stakes and Test Scores

Scores on the ITBS increased substantially in Chicago in the second half of the 1990s. However, many factors besides the accountability policies may have influenced the achievement trends in Chicago. For instance, the population of students may have changed during the period in which high-stakes resting was implemented. An influx of recent immigrants during the mid- to late 1990s may depress the city's test scores, whereas they would be likely to rise with the return of middle-class students to the city. Similarly, policy changes at the state or national level, such as the efforts to reduce class sizes or mandate higher-quality teachers, if effective, would likely lead one to overestimate the impact of Chicago's policies.

The rich set of longitudinal, student-level data available for Chicago allowed me to overcome many of these concerns. I was able to adjust for observable changes in student composition, such as the district's racial and socioeconomic makeup and its students' prior achievement. Moreover, because achievement data were available back to 1990, six years prior to the introduction of the accountability policies, I was able to account for preexisting achievement trends within Chicago. Using this information, I looked for a sharp increase in achievement (a break in trend) following the introduction of high-stakes testing as evidence of a policy effect. Comparing achievement trends in Chicago with those in other urban districts in Illinois as well as in large midwestern cities outside Illinois enabled me to address the concern about actions at the stare and federal level that might have influenced achievement. …

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