Sunday, July 19, 2009
Chicago's Claim of Reform Success Among Noncharter Schools is Phony
Second City Ruse
How states like Illinois rig school tests to hype phony achievement.
Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2009
When President Obama chose Arne Duncan to lead the Education Department, he cited Mr. Duncan's success as head of Chicago's public school system from 2001 to 2008. But a new education study suggests that those academic gains aren't what they seemed. The study also helps explain why big-city education reform is unlikely to occur without school choice.
Mr. Obama noted in December that "in just seven years, Arne's boosted elementary test scores here in Chicago from 38% of students meeting the standard to 67%" and that "the dropout rate has gone down every year he's been in charge." But according to "Still Left Behind," a report by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, a majority of Chicago public school students still drop out or fail to graduate with their class. Moreover, "recent dramatic gains in the reported number of CPS elementary students who meet standards on state assessments appear to be due to changes in the tests . . . rather than real improvements in student learning."
Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education.
Our point here isn't to pick on Mr. Duncan, but to illuminate the ease with which tests can give the illusion of achievement. Under the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, states must test annually in grades 3 through 8 and achieve 100% proficiency by 2014. But the law gives states wide latitude to craft their own exams and to define math and reading proficiency. So state tests vary widely in rigor, and some have lowered passing scores and made other changes that give a false impression of academic success.
The new Chicago report explains that most of the improvement in elementary test scores came after the Illinois Standards Achievement Test was altered in 2006 to comply with NCLB. "State and local school officials knew that the new test and procedures made it easier for students throughout the state -- and throughout Chicago -- to obtain higher marks," says the report.
Chicago students fared much worse on national exams that weren't designed by state officials. On the 2007 state test, for example, 71% of Chicago's 8th graders met or exceeded state standards in math, up from 32% in 2005. But results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, a federal standardized test sponsored by the Department of Education, show that only 13% of the city's 8th graders were proficient in math in 2007. While that was better than 11% in 2005, it wasn't close to the 39 percentage-point increase reflected on the Illinois state exam.
In Mr. Duncan's defense, he wasn't responsible for the new lower standards, which were authorized by state education officials. In 2006, he responded to a Chicago Tribune editorial headlined, "An 'A' for Everybody!" by noting (correctly) that "this is the test the state provided; this is the state standard our students were asked to meet." But this doesn't change the fact that by defining proficiency downward, states are setting up children to fail in high school and college. We should add that we've praised New York City test results that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute also claims are inflated, but we still favor mayoral control of New York's schools as a way to break through the bureaucracy and drive more charter schools.
And speaking of charters, the Chicago study says they "provide one bright spot in the generally disappointing performance of Chicago's public schools." The city has 30 charters with 67 campuses serving 30,000 students out of a total public school population of 408,000. Another 13,000 kids are on wait lists because the charters are at capacity, and it's no mystery why. Last year 91% of charter elementary schools and 88% of charter high schools had a higher percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards than the neighborhood schools that the students otherwise would have attended.
Similar results have been observed from Los Angeles to Houston to Harlem. The same kids with the same backgrounds tend to do better in charter schools, though they typically receive less per-pupil funding than traditional public schools. In May, the state legislature voted to increase the cap on Chicago charter schools to 70 from 30, though Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has yet to sign the bill.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley deserves credit for hiring Mr. Duncan, a charter proponent. But in deference to teachers unions that oppose school choice, Mr. Daley stayed mostly silent during the debate over the charter cap. That's regrettable, because it's becoming clear that Chicago's claim of reform success among noncharter schools is phony.