Schools rev students up for high-stakes ISAT tests

The exams are changing what is taught and how it's taught, researchers say.

March 8, 2011

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Students at Jane Addams Junior High in suburban Schaumburg practice answering an ISAT extended response math question. (WBEZ)
The pom-pom squad at Libby took part in the school's ISAT pep rally. The goal: at least 65 percent meeting standards.
Test practice at Pershing West Middle School (Linda Lutton/WBEZ)

Students in Chicago elementary schools begin state standardized testing Tuesday. Indeed, all around Illinois, it’s ISAT time. The test carries high stakes for schools, and for kids. WBEZ offers this peek at how schools get kids ready.

Welcome to our 2010-2011 ISAT pep rally!
 
The auditorium at Libby Elementary School felt like a throbbing kiddie concert Friday.
 
Let me hear you say, ‘We will rock the ISAT test.’ We will rock the ISAT test!
 
Music up…
 
Teachers and even principal Kurt Jones dressed up and danced for laughing, squirming, singing kids.  Jones says the goal is to pump up kids at this South Side school, and have fun.
 
JONES: To get them to relax and realize that they’ve got  it, they know it. High stakes testing is stressful for everyone. And I think we forget that kids get stressed too.
 
Kids have felt their schools revving them up for this day. I was at Legacy Charter School on the West Side six weeks ago, and asked fifth graders what they do at school.
 
GIRL: We prepare for ISAT and we do ISAT practice. Every Friday we work on ISAT to see what we are gonna have problems in so that the teachers can help us fix it.
 
Those students were soon sitting in front of computers answering ISAT-type questions on a web site that boasts users in 33,000 schools.
 
GIRL: From pillows soft / lift heavy head / to see the birds aloft / nibbling daily bread.
 
This student tackled poetry the way she’s been taught:
 
GIRL: So, process of elimination. Sleeping? No. Above? No. Below? No...
 
RADNER: Oh gosh, that’s what I mean…. Oh!
 
Barbara Radner is head of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education.
 
RADNER: We have turned our country into multiple choice land.  They are not thinking the way you really need to think when you read a passage.
 
I visit lots of schools, high performing ones, struggling ones. And every winter I see things most people would probably call test prep.
 
At Pershing West Middle School weeks ago, seventh-graders read a short passage out of a test prep book. Then they discussed answers to multiple choice questions about it.
 
STUDENT: I thought that B was the answer because he said, ‘I felt no fear.’
TEACHER: But did the cheering cause him to have no fear? Or did the mask cause him to have no fear?
 
WATKINS: It’s not ISAT prep. It’s instruction. It’s good instruction.
 
That’s Pershing West principal Cheryl Watkins.
 
PRINCIPAL: Students go through that text and identify the most important answer—and not just the correct answer, but give a justification as to why they CHOSE that answer. So, it’s just good instruction.
 
KORETZ: It is NOT good instruction.
 
You can see people have different opinions about these things. Dan Koretz is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Koretz says high stakes tests are changing education. Curriculum is narrowed to cover only what’s on the tests. Class time is spent on practice tests, not teaching. And he says we can’t tell anymore if scores are going up because kids are learning more or because they’re getting better at taking tests.
 
KORETZ: There’s no check on the system. There is nobody in the system who has an incentive to go in and look at the kind of test prep that’s going on and say, ‘No, no. I don’t want scores increased that way. That’s bad instruction.’ Because the principal wants the biggest possible increase in scores, the teacher does, the superintendent does—everybody does. 
 
Koretz says the new and improved tests the state is coming up with won’t fix that problem.  
 
ambi: If you put this on an ISAT you will probably get it wrong. You probably won’t get your two points. 
 
At Jane Addams Junior High in suburban Schaumburg, nearly all kids meet standards on the ISAT. Math teachers here say they took just a couple of days for explicit ISAT instruction.
 
But teacher Devin Jannotta says if it weren’t for the ISAT, she’d teach math differently.
 
JANNOTTA: Deeper, in depth for sure. It’s mile wide and inch deep kind of thing. There’s 13 chapters in a book and we have to cover 10 by ISAT.
 
Jannotta says she’ll use the rest of the school year to re-visit topics kids need to know in real life, as well as for the test.