What’s the future of standardized tests in Chicago Public Schools?

Students talk with their teacher, Camryn Self, at CPS' Shoesmith School in 2019. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ
Students talk with their teacher, Camryn Self, at CPS' Shoesmith School in 2019. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

What’s the future of standardized tests in Chicago Public Schools?

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Every fall for nearly a decade, teacher Kelly Crawford would give her students a standardized test called the NWEA MAP and then try to convince her students their score didn’t define them.

Three months later, they would take it again. And three months later, again, only this time it was high stakes. The spring scores dictated which students were promoted or could vie for a seat in the city’s elite test-in schools. They also would be used to evaluate Crawford and her school.

Crawford teaches at Mollison Elementary, a South Side school where some students are way below grade level, while others are doing just fine. Many already struggled with their confidence.

“All this testing took the love out of teaching,” Crawford said. “It took the love out of the kids’ learning. It made them fearful of it. Every time the NWEA came around, my kids would get all this anxiety.”

This year, Crawford and her students don’t have to worry about MAP testing. The Chicago Board of Education’s contract with NWEA ended in June. But still Crawford doesn’t believe CPS’ long-standing reliance on standardized testing is over, and she wants to know what’s coming next.

New CEO Pedro Martinez confirmed he is considering which standardized testing Chicago Public Schools will use next. He said he does not particularly like standardized testing, but he stresses the need for accountability.

“Parents have to know how their children are doing. They should know whether their children are below grade level, whether they’re above grade level,” he said. “They should be able to hold us accountable, about what we’re doing to support their children.”

These decisions come at a precarious time. Chicago Public Schools had become a beacon of success after studies showed that students made remarkable academic progress between third and eighth grade based on standardized tests from 2009 to 2014. The school system was called a “district on the rise” and “extraordinary.” Chicago students grew more over five years — averaging roughly six years of growth — than students in nearly every other school district in America.

But in the years just before the pandemic, between 2014 and 2019, some of that growth in reading stagnated as students reached eighth grade. Eighth graders were still scoring higher than they had a decade earlier and more were at grade level, according to results of a rigorous national test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress.” But students were no longer transcending expected academic growth between third and eighth grade.

“These kids are not coming out of eighth grade at higher and higher levels of proficiency and that’s a huge problem,” said Paul Zavitkovsky, a researcher at the Center for Urban Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “When that extra growth flattens out, it has ripple effects all the way up the chain through high school and post secondary.”

And now we’re facing the pandemic. Many experts say the pandemic has slowed academic progress for students, particularly for low-income students and students of color. Test results are bearing that out in many school districts across the country, but CPS won’t have an overall picture of student performance until next year. The state assessment, which is given in the spring, is the only uniform standardized test students will take.

The future of testing

Crawford is one of many teachers who say it is hard to pinpoint what students lost academically during the pandemic. Many students may have forgotten certain skills but seem to be able to pick them up again once reminded, she said.

But she has noticed a change in how students approach work. Learning from home made it too easy for them to give up when they didn’t understand.

“The kids really are not up for the challenge,” she said.

Crawford said she is spending a lot of time this year trying to get her students to explain their thinking and get back into learning again.

This year, teachers are testing their students with a new assessment system called Star 360, which the board of education approved in June. It’s includes screening, diagnostic, and progress monitoring tools. This information can identify students who are far behind and is being provided so teachers can provide extra support. But Crawford and others wonder if Star 360 results may eventually become part of the system used to evaluate teachers or rate schools.

They wonder because that’s the role the NWEA MAP played and nothing has emerged to replace it.

For years, the NWEA MAP exam results in Chicago drove many important decisions affecting schools, teachers and students. They were used to evaluate teachers. they were also a key measure in rating schools each year. Ratings helped parents decide where to send their children and the school district sometimes used the ratings to impose drastic actions, such as school closings.

CPS’ rating system is on pause during the pandemic and efforts are underway to develop a new rating system.

CPS has long been dependent on test scores as a way to measure school performance and that might be hard to break, said Paula Barajas, a special education and English as a Second Language teacher at Ruiz Elementary.

Barajas is on a school district committee trying to develop the new rating system. She said there is a lot of debate among committee members as to what the role of test scores should play. It is hard to convince parents they don’t need test scores to judge a school.

Many on the committee are pushing for the new rating system to include things like how money is allocated, the quality of arts programs, or whether a school has reading interventionists.

“Hopefully, the new system is more formative, more of a flashlight, and less like a hammer,” Barajas said. “For some schools, growth in testing might not be so great. But here are these other wonderful things that are happening in the school.”

Barajas also is on a state committee that is supposed to help the state choose a new assessment system. However, she and others are worried about a state plan to implement a new test, to be given three times a year, that could be like the NWEA MAP or even could be the NWEA MAP itself.

Elevating learning

Over the two decades, more students in Chicago started performing at grade level, according to results on both the NWEA MAP and on the national NAEP exams.

But shortly before the pandemic, NAEP and NWEA results began to diverge, with NAEP showing 4th and 8th grade reading scores beginning to drop while MAP scores held steady.

For Stanford Professor Sean Reardon, who did research on CPS improvements, this is not a cause for alarm

“It’s not like bad news,” said Reardon. “It’s just Chicago is no longer the brightest star among the 30 largest districts in the country in a way that was five years ago.”

But for UIC’s Zavitkovsky, it’s a sign that Chicago students need something different if they’re going to reach higher levels.

In a recently released paper, he argues that Chicago’s extreme focus on the NWEA MAP prevented that move. He argues that the MAP test — and the instruction it engenders — tends to emphasize one-skill-at-a-time instruction as opposed to the more sophisticated higher-order thinking skills emphasized on the NAEP.

Zavitkovsky said the school district needs to shift gears so that teachers balance teaching basic skills while also being incentivized to push students to develop critical thinking skills.

“Yes, continue to teach basic skills but create more opportunities for students to engage in individual and small group problem solving that require them to size up and work through without being directly told how to do the work,” he said.

CPS’ former leaders, CEO Janice Jackson and Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade, who departed this summer, also seemed focused on making that transition to higher order skills. It was one reason they spent $135 million to create a new curriculum for every grade and every subject, which launched this summer. They set the stage for ending the NWEA MAP as a district-wide standardized test and instead having assessments tied to the new curriculum.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

This story was corrected to say CPS’ contract with NWEA ended in June. It also was updated to add more details about the Star 360 assessments.