Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Chicago Student Test Scores Up, Sort Of

This year's standardized test results for Chicago Public Schools have been released, and Mayor Daley is crowing:

"We're on our way to becoming the best urban school district in the nation," Mayor Richard M. Daley said Tuesday, proclaiming it a "historic day" for teachers, parents, taxpayers and elementary students.

Scores went up -- a lot: 15% more elementary school students passed the state achievement exams this year than last year, maintaining a trend. But the mayor my be crowing a little too soon:
At the same time, city and school officials acknowledged that the gains are attributed in part to the Illinois State Board of Education making it easier to pass the 8th-grade math exam by lowering the passing score. The state also revamped the test content and gave students more time to finish.

So basically, students did well on a test of dubious comparative value to previous tests.

The important part of the above changes is that the passing line was lowered. It is a myth that extra time on an exam really helps most students. The only people extra time will help are people with genuine learning disabilities that make test-taking logistically difficult, or smart kids with lawyers who game the system with false claims of a disability, and who use the extra time to move from the 95th percentile to the 99th. There are few of the latter in Chicago Public Schools.

An exam like the one in Illinois, the ISAT (Illinois Standards Achievement Test), ask the test taker with each item to show that he or she possesses a single piece of knowledge, for instance, the knowledge of how to divide fractions. If a test-taker has that knowledge, he or she will answer quickly: the test will not ask him or her to do more than complete the mathematical operation. A test-taker who cannot answer quickly probably doesn't know what to do with the problem, and so gives up on completing the operation altogether. Extra time does nothing to help them.

It is similarly a myth to suggest that a student will puzzle over an item he or she does not understand, and therefore needs extra time to get through the test. This mostly does not happen. A student who confronts an item that he or she does not understand will put down an answer quite quickly: usually the student believes he or she knows what to do, but is wrong because an understanding of the problem is lacking to begin with. The worst students finish the fastest because the wrong answer choices align with what the worst students wrongly believe is the right thing to do.

One official agrees that the extra time didn't matter:
Becky McCabe, head of state testing for the Illinois State Board of Education, said she believes comparisons can still be made between this year's results and prior tests, because the exams last spring and in prior years had the same level of difficulty. She also said she does not believe many students took the extra time, based on anecdotal information.

McCabe said she heard from educators that students were more engaged and prepared this year and liked the new color format of the testing booklet, all of which could lead to higher passing rates.

I don't actually doubt there were some improvements in student achievement in Chicago: a 15% higher passing rate is more than the test changes can alone account for, and I do know that many schools have made strong efforts to ensure students master the content that will later be tested. But the mayor will probably find the improvements difficult to repeat: the state board of education can't change the test every year.

The District 299 CPS Blog has much more -- here, here, and here. At that blog, Alexander Russo reports that the PSAE scores from high schools will be "released in another week or two." The PSAE is the Illinois state test I focus on in my work.

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