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Question criticized as charter-school ‘propaganda’ pulled from CPS tests

Julie Woestehoff executive director Parents United for Responsible Educatiwith copy reading test passage thshe says amounts pro-charter-school 'propaganda.' A national

Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, with a copy of a reading test passage that she says amounts to pro-charter-school "propaganda." A national testing company ash-canned the passage after Woestehoff's complain

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Updated: July 1, 2012 12:25PM

A national testing company has ash-canned a reading passage that critics say subjected a captive audience of Chicago Public School children to pro-charter-school “brainwashing.’’

The Scantron Corporation took action this month after the head of Chicago’s Parents United for Responsible Education demanded the company drop the passage and apologize to what could be thousands of Chicago students she said were forced to read it this school year and last.

PURE executive director Julie Woestehoff said the passage, titled “Reforming Education: Charter Schooling,’’ is so one-sidedly pro-charter that its use amounts to an attempt to “brainwash’’ children “with propaganda about charter schools.’’

“Students taking a test should not be subjected to false claims about charter schools which could cause them to feel humiliated, second-class or dumb because they do not attend a `better’ charter school,” Woestehoff said in a May 9 email of protest to Scantron.

Written in non-fiction style, with pie charts and bullet points, the passage flatly states that charter schools are “showing improvements in student achievement,” even though several studies point to mixed results. In Chicago, charters have ignited pockets of fierce resistance.

The passage also states that the children of a “multimillionaire,’’ named “Charles Mendel,” attend a charter school because Mendel “believes that charter schools deliver the highest quality education.’’

A Scantron spokeswoman said her initial research indicated the passage, and Mendel, were works of fiction, although she never doubled-back to confirm this, as promised. She later explained by email that the passage was merely intended to test the “critical thinking skills of seventh-grade-level students.’’

“Who the hell is Mr. Mendel?” asked Woestehoff. “To put him in there is aligned with propaganda, not reading comprehension.”

“It’s insidious, if you think about it. If they are passing this off as reading comprehension and they put in some stuff that’s real and some that’s fake and some that’s on the borderline, what are they doing to our children? . . . They are brainwashing our kids to make them think they should be in a charter school.’’

The snafu follows recent disclosures that kids who took some CPS-only tests, as well as Illinois public school students statewide, were among those fed a controversial test passage several years ago about a race between a hare and a pineapple produced by another big test maker, Pearson.

New York State education officials just last month scrapped all student responses to “The Hare and the Pineapple’’ after parents, principals and teachers complained they couldn’t tell which answers were correct. During “Pineapplegate,’’ the New York Daily News quoted the all-time money-winner on Jeopardy! as saying “the story makes no sense whatsoever.’’

Across the nation, organized backlash against standardizing testing is growing. Pineapplegate and Scantron’s charter school passage are just two examples of why test questions — particularly in high-stakes tests — should be released after use, Woestehoff said.

The Scantron passage exposed by PURE seems to break new ground in that “This is the first bizarre standardized test question I’ve seen that appears to be pure charter school propaganda,’’ Woestehoff said.

In a May 11 email to Woestehoff, Scantron said the passage was “not intended to be a comprehensive statement about the state of charter schools in Chicago or the nation, nor a slight of public schools. That said, we agree the copy could be perceived as lacking sensitivity.

“We sincerely apologize for any upset it may have caused the Chicago Public School students who took this exam, their parents and your organization’s members.’’

Said CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler, “Based on the concerns raised, Scantron seems to have done the right thing” by pulling the passage.

Close to 600 CPS schools used Scantron tests several times in each of the last two school years to determine student progress over time, CPS officials said. Scantron results were even included in new CPS School Progress reports released this school year. However, CPS is switching to a different test this fall.

Scantron’s website claims Scantron products serve 80 percent of the nation’s largest school districts, and charter schools from Michigan to California also use them, but a Scantron spokeswoman refused to say which states or school districts were exposed to the “Reforming Education: Charter Schooling” passage.

Scantron spokeswoman Donna Hinkelman, in an email, defended the process that produced the passage. saying it was “written following defined guidelines and protocol by professionals in educational item development and test design.’’

Yet several assessment experts questioned how the passage could have made it through the “bias and sensitivity” committees that often review materials before they hit market.

“I can tell you, that’s a biased passage,’’ said Jamal Abedi, an assessment expert and professor at the University of California-Davis.

“By saying that millionaires send their children to a charter school, you change the direction of the passage and load the passage with social and economic issues. . . .

“The question should have been written much better, much less affected by politics and culture,’’ Abedi said.

“Poor kids might feel bad when reading it. Kids not in charters may feel bad. Bringing the concept of millionaires into the question and taking the side of charter schools is not appropriate.’’

Stanley Rabinowitz, who oversees test development for WestEd, said that without an opposing view or explanation that the passage was intended to be one-sided, it “sounds like a lovely story written by a charter school proponent.’’

If he was on a “sensitivity committee,’’ Rabinowitz said, he never would have approved the passage.

“I don’t need, in a Chicago environment, to have passages on charter schools. It’s not worth it,’’ Rabinowitz said. “No matter what you do, someone is going to object because of the political climate around charters. . . .

“The problem isn’t the kids; it’s the adults. The kids don’t care. Kids don’t write letters. The adults write letters.’’

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