Chicago scales back on standardized testing

Following parent and teacher complaints, Chicago Public Schools drops 15 of the 25 standardized tests it required last year.

August 6, 2013

(Flickr/biologycorner)

Chicago parents and teachers have complained loudly and creatively that schools spend too much time forcing kids to take standardized tests. And after a systematic review, Chicago’s schools chief agrees.

The district overtests students, Barbara Byrd-Bennett told reporters Tuesday as she announced that Chicago Public Schools will cut out 15 of the 25 standardized exams students from  kindergarten through 12th grade were required to take just last year.

Byrd-Bennett says she wants to “reduce the amount of time that we spend testing and assessing and better use that time for teaching and learning. 

“This is really about a best-practice for kids and what really gives teachers maximum instruction time. And responding to the overwhelming cry by parents and teachers that this district in fact overtested youngsters.”

The district’s review, which included focus group discussions with parents, teachers, and principals, found that all the testing—and the prep that often goes along with it— was crowding out time for actual teaching. Tests were often duplicative, and the district found many standardized exams don’t measure the critical thinking and analytical skills schools are expected to impart under new, more rigorous state standards.

Chicago is eliminating nearly all fall standardized testing.

Eighth graders used to take three district-mandated standardized bubble tests a year; they’ll now take just one, CPS says. Third through seventh graders will have one fewer standardized test. And kindergarten through second graders could see the biggest reduction, because schools were giving their own tests in addition to others required by the district.

To determine how much academic growth individual students experienced—and to judge the quality of their teachers—the district will compare test scores from the spring of one year to the spring test from the following year.

Chicago is adding a new requirement: schools will have to give rigorous quarterly exams —measuring problem solving and writing as well as skills in reading and math. But the district says those will not be standardized, multiple-choice, bubble exams, and schools and teachers can design the assessments themselves.

“I would say it's a modest reduction in standardized testing,” said Christopher Ball, a Chicago parent and member of the group More Than a Score, which has argued for less standardized testing in Chicago schools.

“What this assessment policy can’t do is reduce the high stakes of the test,” Ball laments. “The spring [exam] is still going to be used to evaluate teachers, to evaluate principals--so for all schools this will still be a high stakes test. There will still be a lot of pressure to do well on it."

Ball is also concerned that tests the district has listed as “optional” for kindergarten through second grades could be mandatory if mid-level network superintendents require them.

There’s a growing backlash to standardized testing across the nation. Student test scores are used to grade teachers, determine whether children are promoted to the next grade in school, and whether schools should stay open or be shut down for poor performance.

CPS says its plan saves money. The cost of district-required standardized tests drops from $10.7 million last year to an estimated $8.3 million this year.