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Editorial: The trouble with teaching to the test

Updated: September 8, 2013 6:18AM



Chicago teachers are tired of being forced to teach to a test. Chicago teachers and parents are fed up with losing critical learning time to testing and test prep.

They’ve railed for years against the excessive number of standardized tests force-fed to Chicago public school students, beginning as young as kindergarten.

They are right — and CPS’ new leadership is listening.

On Wednesday, Chicago will get a glimpse of a more sane testing system for its children.

CPS this fall will eliminate 15 district-mandated testing sessions, bringing from 25 to 10 the total number it requires, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, schools CEO since last October, plans to announce on Wednesday. This doesn’t include state-mandated spring tests.

Nearly all fall standardized testing will be eliminated, concentrating testing in the spring. Significantly, the youngest learners, in kindergarten and first grade, will be required to take only a literacy test, and that exam will be chosen by school staff; two other mandated tests for those grades are being dropped. In a show of respect for school staffs, CPS leadership is letting each school choose which test to give its youngest students and pick any other optional tests they may want to add.

The goal is to focus on the critical thinking skills that are at the heart of the common core curriculum standards that Chicago and schools across the country are implementing now. New state tests based on those standards will begin in 2015.

This a moment of sanity in a year that hasn’t had many of them.

“This is wonderful — we are liberated from foolishness,” said Barbara Radner, head of the Center for Chicago Education at DePaul University. Foolishness, according to Radner, is “ having tests that essentially get the same data, and wasting kids’ time taking it and soaking up learning time.”

Also, she and others add, soaking up time that could be put to better use in the computer lab, where many of these tests are administered. Radner estimates that eliminating these tests — exams that she says focus on basic skills rather than critical thinking — will free up at least six weeks of school time that has been consumed with getting each grade tested.

CPS leadership deserves much credit for making these changes, and it’s getting it from several quarters, including the Chicago Teachers Union. But CTU President Karen Lewis still thinks the testing load is excessive, and she might be right. Ongoing evaluation of CPS’ testing regimen is essential, with a eye toward paring back until CPS leaders, teachers and parents feel confident that testing time is both limited and well spent.

A change on the horizon deserves close scrutiny. CPS is putting the finishing touches on a new policy for rating its schools. Insiders tell us it will rely heavily on one standardized test for elementary schools. The test, NWEA MAP, wasn’t necessarily designed for rating schools, they say, and they fear this will elevate a test that emphasizes basic skills over critical thinking. CPS dismisses this, saying the test is aligned with the common core. We’d like to see these issues thoroughly flushed out before a board of education votes on the policy, likely later this month.



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